Kalmar and Bell prove a dynamic working duo at the Grant Park Music Festival

June 12, 2011
By Wynne Delacoma

Christopher Bell marks ten years as director of the Grant Park Chorus this year and will conduct two programs at the lakefront festival.

The Grant Park Music Festival, which kicks off its 77th season of outdoor concerts Wednesday night, is one of Chicago’s most pleasurable paradoxes.

Concerts are free and open to anyone who might wander by and catch the sound of Mozart, Berlioz or Mahler wafting from the north end of Millennium Park. Depending on the weather, the dress code runs to shorts and flip-flops or improvised rain gear.

But the performances themselves convey a sense of profound luxury on multiple levels. The festival’s home, the glittering Frank Gehry-designed Pritzker Pavilion east of Michigan at Randolph, is one of Chicago’s most elegant, graceful spaces. The Grant Park Orchestra includes some of the best musicians in the city, a sizable number of whom also perform with Lyric Opera. And to top it off, the festival’s musical forces also include the 80-voice, fully professional Grant Park Chorus. With a top-flight chorus in residence, festival audiences are as likely to hear the Verdi Requiem or an evening of opera choruses as a Beethoven symphony or a Samuel Barber concerto.

For the past ten years, the Grant Park Chorus has been directed by Christopher Bell, an indefatigable Belfast-born Scotsman with a dry wit and an eagle ear for deftly blended, sumptuously flexible choral sound. He and Carlos Kalmar, who joined the festival as principal conductor in 2000, have proved to be a dynamic duo, bringing such ambitious works as Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius and Britten’s War Requiem to large, enthusiastic audiences.

Bell’s 10th anniversary season at Grant Park this summer is similarly ambitious. On June 17-18 Kalmar leads the orchestra and chorus in two rarely done choral pieces: Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise) and Arnold Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden (Peace on Earth). During the Taste of Chicago, Bell and the chorus will move into the Harris Theater June 28 and 30 for an a cappella evening of music by American composers including Gian Carlo Menotti, David Del Tredici and Ned Rorem as well as Chicago-based Stacey Garrop. On July 22-23 the chorus will be featured in Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and Faure’s Requiem.

Bell spends August in Scotland where he is chorusmaster of the Edinburgh International Festival, but he has helped prepare in advance the Grant Park Chorus for the first of two late-season blockbusters: The Book with Seven Seals, a 1937 work by Austrian composer Franz Schmidt. An evocation of the Apocalypse that is barely known outside of Austria where Kalmar began his career, The Book with Seven Seals is scheduled Aug. 12-13. The Verdi Requiem closes the season Aug. 19-20.

Kalmar, who was recently named artistic director of the Grant Park Festival, and Bell have established a smooth working relationship over the past decade.

“I had never seen Christopher before,’’ said Kalmar, about his first encounter with Bell during the festival’s search for a new chorus director.

“We had narrowed the search down to two individuals, and he was still a candidate. We were still in the old [Petrillo] shell, and we did the Bartok Cantata Profana. I thought to myself, ‘This is a very interesting musician.’ Not only did he get the chorus to sing very tight. He worked on the idiom, the quality, the variety of tone.”

The son of an Anglican clergyman, Bell grew up in Belfast and sang in the cathedral boys’ choir. He continued singing in mixed choruses and studied the organ. An invitation to conduct the Edinburgh University Choir, an all-student ensemble open to anybody who cared to show up, set him on his eventual career path. He relished the challenge of whipping the group, which he described as “quite terrible,” into performing shape.

“I loved the fact that each rehearsal was about motivating people,” he said, “about getting people to sing something they weren’t able to sing before.”

Carlos Kalmar opens the season for the Grant Park Music Festival Wednesday night with music of Ravel and Berlioz.

Working with accomplished singers at Grant Park, many of whom teach music themselves and perform with other organizations such as Music of the Baroque and Lyric Opera, the challenges are different. The goal is to shape a chorus capable of responding to Kalmar’s musical ideas.

“We have a very good working relationship,’’ said Bell. “I know the sort of things Carlos likes. He’s also very spontaneous. He reacts to things as he finds them, taking inspiration from the way the music is being played and being sung. So my job is to present the material in as fully formed a way as I can, knowing that he may well change a lot of things.

“It’s not always possible to get strong ideas from Carlos in advance,” he continued. “And sometimes when I’ve done that, he will come along and say, ‘I know that I said I wanted this. But now that I hear it, I want something else.’ I present a palette of possibilities.’’

The chorus has little trouble, Bell said, shifting musical gears.

“We have very fine singers, an extraordinary group to work with. Of all the people capable of changing direction completely between the beginning and the end of a rehearsal, this group is it.”

The chorus will release a new CD this summer on the Cedille label, a recording of last season’s performances of works for chorus and orchestra by American composers Aaron Copland, Leo Sowerby and William Schuman. This season they will record selections from this year’s a cappella performances June 28 and 30.

“The idea,” said Bell, “is mainly to do repertoire that hasn’t been recorded before.’’

With a decade of smooth collaboration behind them, the Kalmar-Bell duo is likely to continue as Kalmar begins his first season as artistic director as well as principal conductor of the Grant Park Music Festival.

“I just trust him completely,’’ said Kalmar. “He has the capability of seeing where my mind might go. He bakes a great cake, and I do a nice icing.”

“I have a youth choir in Scotland at a phenomenal level,” said Bell, who has won high praise for his work with groups including the Ulster Youth Choir and the National Youth Choir of Scotland. “I’m getting to work with the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, and I have a professional group of between 60 and 120 voices in Chicago. I’m a very happy man.”

The Grant Park Music Festival opens 6:30 p.m. Wednesday June 15 with Carlos Kalmar leading the Grant Park Orchestra in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique and Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major with Jean-Philippe Collard as soloist. grantparkmusicfestival.org; 312-742-7638.

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