Rains Fail to Dampen Fervor of Grant Park's Burnham Premiere
June 22, 2009
World premiere marks Burnham Plan centennial and Grant Park Music Festival's 75th anniversary
As if heeding a Daniel Burnham-esque call for renewed civic dedication in the face of adversity, a hardy band of listeners stuck out a drenching thunderstorm to witness the world premiere of a new Burnham-inspired oratorio Friday night in Millennium Park.
This Grant Park Music Festival event gave a soggy send-off to the yearlong celebration of the 100th anniversary of the architect's Plan of Chicago. A noisy cloudburst cleared the Great Lawn and forced many to seek shelter at the back of the Jay Pritzker Pavilion.
While it was hardly the most auspicious launch for "Plans," American composer Michael Torke's oratorio drew a committed performance from the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus, and vocal soloists, under Carlos Kalmar's direction. City and state dignitaries, including Governor Pat Quinn and Mayor Richard M. Daley (heard via tape recording), lent their imprimatur to the kickoff.
The 40-minute choral work, commissioned by Grant Park to honor both the Burnham Plan centennial and the festival's 75th anniversary, constitutes a big public statement. As with many occasional pieces, its materials are simple and direct, designed (consciously or unconsciously) to go down easily with Grant Park's diverse urban audience.
Torke drew his text from Burnham's famous speech that begins, "Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men's blood." Each of the five movements is based on a sentence from that speech. Key words such as "order" and "beauty" are repeated by the chorus and soloists in vocal lines that range from staccato declamation to exultant unisons. These phrases rise and fall over dappled, pulsing, post-minimalist orchestral lines that reflect a canny sense of instrumental color. Repetition reinforces Burnham's noble rhetoric.
Too bad that, despite amplification, only about half of the text emerged clearly above the downpour. Too bad, as well, that Torke's harmonies at times lapse into banality.
The strongest section is the third, "Long After We Are Gone," in which the voices of Jonita Lattimore and Bryan Griffin intertwined beautifully, sometimes in canonic motion. Her luscious soprano had both float and amplitude, while his tenor retained its robust lyric quality regardless of the pressure he applied to it.
If "Plans" is utterly conservative compared with the artistic daring displayed by the park's gleaming new Burnham pavilions, its fervent waves of choral and orchestral sound give post-modern voice to the great urban planner's earnest vision for Chicago in the century of modernism. The scale of the music matches the scale of the city's magnificent front yard.
That the premiere came off as well as it did was a tribute to the unique resilience of the fine, weather-proof musicians of Grant Park. The diehards who stuck out the storm gave the piece and its composer an ovation. Director Christopher Bell, whose chorus covered itself with glory, deserved the lion's share of applause.
Also apparently immune to external distraction was Jon Kimura Parker, the commanding soloist in Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto. The Canadian pianist has the technical chops to tame this behemoth, and he also has the strength and suppleness of line, variety of touch and generosity of feeling to make its many tunes take wing. Bravos all around.
John von Rhein, ChicagoTribune.com