Indoor Setting Suits Grant Park Performance of Pulitzer Winners

June 26, 2010

But both pieces were full of bombast, the full-throated chorus and blazing brass too often pummeling us with heavy-handed evocations of joyful troops or divine power.

The Grant Park Music Festival faced some formidable obstacles this week.

Wednesday night's concert was nearly canceled because of thunderstorms and threats of tornadoes. But devoted fans waited it out, and the show eventually went on.

The Taste of Chicago is mightier than the mightiest wind, however. This weekend, as the 30th installment of the city's annual food fest moves into Grant Park, the music festival is beating its annual retreat from outdoor performances.

Friday night's concert with the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus in Millennium Park's Harris Theater took full advantage of the move indoors. The program, which will be repeated tonight, was Grant Park's typically unusual lineup -- three American works, all early winners of the Pulitzer Prize for music. Chicago-based Cedille Records is recording both performances conducted by Carlos Kalmar, the orchestra's principal conductor.

One of the works, the suite drawn from the ballet "Appalachian Spring,'' which earned Aaron Copland the 1945 Pulitzer, is a well-beloved concert-hall staple. Kalmar drew a luxuriously spacious performance from the orchestra, allowing the succulent woodwinds and expressive brass room to bloom and sing.

The program's other two pieces, however, were much more obscure. William Schuman's "A Free Song,'' Secular Cantata No. 2 for Chorus and Orchestra, won the first Pulitzer, in 1943, and Leo Sowerby's "The Canticle of the Sun'' for Chorus and Orchestra was the 1946 prize winner. Schuman used a text by Walt Whitman for his cantata, and Sowerby's text was an English translation of a hymn attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. Both were Grant Park premieres.

Each had exquisite moments. Whitman wrote his text after nursing Civil War soldiers, and Schuman's cantata opened with a stern warning to Americans lulled by peace. Prompted by a haunting solo woodwind, the chorus spun out long, almost hallucinatory melodic lines. In its quieter moments, Sowerby's tone-painting was inspired. In the section praising the Earth, the orchestra's heavy, evenly paced strokes implied both back-breaking work and endless bounty.

But both pieces were full of bombast, the full-throated chorus and blazing brass too often pummeling us with heavy-handed evocations of joyful troops or divine power. A little triumphalism goes a long way.

Wynne Delacoma, Chicago Sun-Times