For Grant Park chorus master Bell, it's 10 productive years - and counting

July 19, 2011

by John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune

Amid a hectic transatlantic schedule that has Christopher Bell shuttling each season between engagements in the United Kingdom and Chicago, he looks forward to the balm of summers spent working with his Grant Park Chorus. This year he is celebrating his 10th year as its director, and the milestone finds him brimming with all the enthusiasm of a proud parent.

Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, but long a resident of Scotland, Bell has built the 120-voice choir into one of the nation's, and indeed the world's, top symphony choruses. For that he shares the credit with the dedicated choristers themselves and with his colleague Carlos Kalmar, artistic director and principal conductor of the Grant Park Music Festival. Their productive working relationship makes them Grant Park's dynamic duo.

Ten years ago, the duo was a trio, consisting of Kalmar, Bell and former Grant Park artistic and general director James Palermo.

"When I arrived here, Carlos, Jim and I identified some issues within the chorus we needed to work on," Bell recalled in a recent phone conversation from Edinburgh, where he was rehearsing several programs with the two choruses he directs there, the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and the National Youth Choir of Scotland.

"For the first four or five years we set about creating the choral sound we wanted and needed; we worked very hard to recruit the people who could give us that. It has taken some time and it has involved bringing new people on board. But everybody works very well together, and it has been very satisfying to see the process come to fruition."

This weekend at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, Bell will lead the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus in a pairing of choral masterpieces old and new, Gabriel Faure's Requiem and Leonard Bernstein's "Chichester Psalms."

He also has been preparing his choir for two blockbusters this month and next: Jean Sibelius' epic "Kullervo" symphony, July 29-30; and, for Aug. 12-13, Franz Schmidt's "The Book with Seven Seals," a massive, richly Romantic oratorio that's seldom performed outside the composer's native Austria. Hannu Lintu will conduct the former work, Kalmar the latter.

The twinkly Ulsterman Bell (who owns up to "having just passed the 10th anniversary of my 40th birthday") possesses an exacting ear for choral sound that's matched by a remarkable knack for getting his massed voices to adapt in short order to the enormous, and enormously varied, repertory Grant Park produces each season.

"At Grant Park, where we have a relatively limited rehearsal period for each program, being very well prepared is important," he said. "I mark the scores as much as possible to assist the singers, and they respond to that very eagerly."

Even so, a great deal of the heavy lifting actually is done months and even years before, during the auditions process, he pointed out.

"When I recruit people for the chorus, I am constantly searching out the most versatile singers I can find," said Bell, who auditions the group's tenured professionals every other February. "So when they have to be a Broadway chorus one week, an a cappella choir the next and a Verdi Requiem chorus the week after that, they are already well prepared."

There are no major differences between preparing choruses in America and Great Britain, he observed. But there are valuable lessons he applies from one situation to the next.