Kalmar, Grant Park Orchestra wrap the season with Adams and Stravinsky

August 17, 2013

Carlos Kalmar led the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus in music of John Adams and Stravinsky Friday night at the Pritzker Pavilion. File photo: Norman Timonera

The final program of the Grant Park Music Festival, presented Friday night at the Pritzker Pavilion, served up a triptych of works that bracingly exemplified the strengths of the lakefront music series under Carlos Kalmar’s tenure.

There is no finer podium interpreter of American music currently before the public then Kalmar, as demonstrated yet again with two rarely heard works of John Adams. And the volatile performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring showed the ability of the festival’s artistic director to bring full-tilt excitement to a repertory standard.

John Adams’ Harmonium for large orchestra and chorus is a seminal work in the American composer’s development. A choral symphony in all but name, Harmonium is cast in two large sections, drawing on three poems, one by John Donne and two by Emily Dickinson.

While this early work (1981) hails from Adams’ high Minimalist period, it also shows the composer moving into a more expressive and less rhythmically centered style. The first section opens with a haunting ascending vocalise for chorus. The ensuing insistent music for Donne’s “Negative Love” builds to a massive climax yet Adams’ skill and deft layering of the voices and orchestra shows his scoring at its most impressive.

In Part II, with its setting of Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” the spacious, radiant music offers one of Adams’ most beautiful inspirations, while the final section “Wild Nights” (again, Dickinson), provides a cumulative excitement mouting to a thunderous climax for voices and orchestra before quietening to a glowing coda and sense of peaceful benediction.

Kalmar brought incisive rhythmic cut and remarkable clarity to this huge work, keeping the voices and ensemble in alignment and only fitfully overwhelming the chorus with the massive clamor of the final section.

Prepared by Northwestern University’s Donald Nally, the Grant Park Chorus delivered one of their finest outings of the summer, bringing sonorous ensemble weight and crisp articulation with words always clear.

Harmonium was prefaced by The Black Gondola, Adams’ arrangement for orchestra of Franz Liszt’s La lugubre gondola. Though the intimate harmonic edge of the keyboard original is somewhat lost in this well-upholstered version, the transcription is effective enough on its own terms, even if the result sounds more like the music came from Liszt’s son-in-law Wagner than Liszt himself (as Adams noted, to his credit).

This year marks the centennial of the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and this ground-breaking 1913 score is now a repertory item—a far cry from the celebrated riot that ensued at the first performance in Paris with Frenchmen hitting each other on the heads with umbrellas.

Sadly, nothing like that happened Friday night (maybe on the lawn), but this complex score can still pack a wallop as shown with the performance by the Grant Park Orchestra.

To tackle Stravinsky’s score, with its complex key signatures and constantly shifting rhythms would be difficult under normal standards but for the Grant Park Orchestra to serve up such a polished and outstandingly played performance on minimal rehearsal time was truly an achievement. Introduced with a sinuous bassoon solo, there was ample power and raw brutality in the driving rhythms with Kalmar eliciting notably transparent textures.

What was somewhat lacking was the sense of creepy primeval bleakness. The “Adoration of the Earth” needed more of the sense of rubbery new life unspooling from the muck and so too the opening section of “The Sacrifice” felt far too streamlined and lacking atmosphere and darkness.

Also, though possibly a miking issue, balances seemed off in the Stravinsky with strings barely registering at times over the dominant winds and brass.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Admission is free. gpmf.org

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