Grant Park Festival wraps season with compelling account of Dvořák’s “Spectre’s Bride”

August 18, 2012

Carlos Kalmar led the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus in Dvořák's "The Spectre's Bride" Friday night at the Pritzker Pavilion.

The Grant Park Music Festival seems to be cornering the market on rarely performed choral works of Antonin Dvořák. In 2010, lakefront audiences heard the Czech composer’s Requiem and this weekend Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra are closing their season with what is likely the Chicago premiere of Dvořák’s The Spectre’s Bride.

In the wake of the success of his Stabat Mater in England, Dvořák received a commission from the London music publisher Novello for a new large-scale choral work. He chose a folk text cast in the same “Death and the Maiden” style popular at the time. In this case, Death, disguised as a young woman’s fiancee, abducts her and takes her on a menacing nocturnal ride to a cemetery where her lover is entombed. She finally realizes she has been deceived (her escort’s making her throw away her rosary and prayerbook should have been a tipoff) and prays for help, which ultimately saves her at the moment of her death.

Dvořák’s “dramatic cantata” was an overwhelming success in his native land and England, but has largely faded into obscurity on this side of the pond. While not a masterpiece on the level of the composer’s Requiem or Stabat Mater, The Spectre’s Bride is supremely well crafted and effective with ample opportunities for chorus, three soloists and orchestra that showcase Dvořák’s flair for dramatic story-telling. Kudos to Kalmar and colleagues for this welcome revival.

Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra delivered one of their finest performances of the summer Friday night. The conductor showed once again what an inspired Dvořákian he is, keeping keen dramatic momentum throughout the unbroken 80-minute work, while eliciting a vast range of color and dynamic subtleties, his fine balancing ensuring that the chorus never swamped the soloists.

Despite the gothic melodrama of the text—hard to escape Friday night since it was performed in English—-three superb soloists provided the strongest possible advocacy. Soprano Jonita Lattimore, standing in on short notice for an ailing Aleksandra Kurzak, sang with gleaming vocalism and passionate commitment in the role of the abducted heroine, bringing moving and expressive power to her final prayer.

Brendan Tuohy’s mellifluous tenor and crystal-clear diction were well-suited to the phantom who entices the maiden to her near-doom. Stephen Hegedus made a most impressive Grant Park debut, the Canadian bass-baritone delivering powerful singing and crisp enunciation in his narrative role, easily rising over the top of the chorus in their many collaborative passages.

But the evening really belonged to the Grant Park Chorus, who wrapped their 50th anniversary season with the finest choral performance of the summer. Scrupulously prepared by guest chorus master William Jon Gray, the Grant Park ensemble sang with delicate refinement in the intimate moments and brought daunting strength to the dramatic passages, with every syllable so clear the text was made largely redundant.

Finally, how heartening it was to see Millennium Park packed with thousands for such an obscure work and have it applauded so enthusiastically by all at the end of the evening.

The Spectre’s Bride will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

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