Review: Kalmar, Orchestra Explore Spirituality at Grant Park

November 30, -0001

By Alan G. Artner, The Chicago Tribune

The penultimate weekend of the Grant Park Music Festival began Friday night at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion with yet another program that might have served as a lesson in courage and imagination for Chicago musical institutions.

Three works, all heard in Grant Park premieres, explored highly personal approaches to spirituality. Two shorter pieces for orchestra were from the beginning of their composers' careers, a longer work for chorus, vocal soloists and orchestra came at the end.

The mix of modern, contemporary and Romantic scores was equally weighted, though quality of performance tipped the balance toward less familiar music from our own time.

James MacMillan's "The Confession of Isobel Gowdie" (1990) is part tone poem, part requiem for a 17th Century Scottish woman tortured and burned as a witch. Slow string music of some radiance flanks a headlong section made more harrowing by yawping brasses and thundering drums. The atmosphere of hymns, appearing in British music throughout the 20th Century, thus was darkened and curdled.

Artistic director Carlos Kalmar called for serene string tone as well as tense and incisive playing of the faster music. The performance came across as the most strongly felt of the evening, with the conductor signaling as much by tapping his heart and pointing to the audience immediately after.

To open the program Kalmar chose Olivier Messiaen's 1930 "Les Offrandes oubliees" ("The Forgotten Offerings"), another meditation in continuous slow-fast-slow sections. This time, however, the slow music is of voluptuous sweetness that fully sweeps away the desperation of what the composer called sin. Amplification hardened this sweetness, giving it a metallic quality, and the account was better at gentleness and quiet than the cutting wildness of the central section.

Franz Schubert's Mass in E-flat major received an overly grand interpretation showing little awareness of period practice. Tempos wearied by being all moderate and stately. The chorus was too large but clear and always sonorous. Five vocal soloists from the Ryan Opera Center were well-matched, which is mostly what Schubert insists they be. He allows no single member to stand out, so soprano Emily Birsan plus tenors John Irvin and Adam Bonanni were most memorable intertwined in the touching Credo.

The program will be repeated at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.