Grant Park Music Fest Begins in High Style

June 16, 2008

To judge from the large, eager crowds that turned out for the opening week's concerts of the 74th Grant Park Music Festival at Millennium Park, patrons have come to appreciate the bargain they are getting at this last of the nation's free municipally-sponsored summer outdoor music festivals.

The dynamic, Frank Gehry-designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion has proved a spectacular lure for millions of visitors since the park opened in 2004, beyond the winningly diverse programming put together by festival director James W. Palermo.

The weekend performances of Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis," heralding a summer replete with choral masterpieces, stood as tribute to the extraordinary results Christopher Bell and Carlos Kalmar have achieved with the Grant Park Chorus and Orchestra as the directors of those worthy ensembles. The almost superhuman demands of this unorthodox but vividly pictorial setting of the mass were impressively met.

Of course, the vast musical and philosophical reach of the "Missa Solemnis" makes it impossible for any one group of musicians to have anything near the last word on it. This was complicated Friday night by the fact that the performers had to evoke the terrors of war, the balm of divine mercy and the eternal hope of peace while competing with the noisy distractions of a teeming urban populace at play.

Kalmar's approach was to emphasize the work's exultant majesty, keeping a firm grip on the overarching line through all the abrupt shifts of tempo and harmony. The concentration of emotional feeling he brought to the whole carried over to the involved choral singing and capable orchestral playing as well as to the fine work of the vocal soloists -- Erin Wall, Anita Krause, James Taylor and Nathan Berg.

Wall was especially impressive, scaling the awkward heights of the soprano solos clearly, vibrantly and expressively.

No less satisfying, in their way, were Kalmar's readings of two Romantic staples, Brahms' Symphony No. 2 and Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto, at Wednesday's Grant Park opener.

The Brahms symphony brought a canny balance between romantic ethos and architectural solidity. And the superb young Canadian violinist James Ehnes was unfailingly sensitive to the ebb and flow of Barber's luscious lyricism.

John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune