“Aida” shines at Ravinia

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

The stars twinkled above Ravinia Park on Saturday. The pavilion stage was also full of stars, as James Conlon led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and a marvelous collection of soloists in a concert performance of Verdi’s “Aida.”

Soprano Latonia Moore made her Ravinia debut, singing the title role with both detail and excitement. Moore offered a winning portrayal of the Ethiopian princess who has become a prisoner-slave of the Egyptians, and who has a deep and abiding love for both her father and Radames, the Egyptian soldier who is one of her people’s biggest enemies. She has soaring vocal power, and is even more spectacular with her nuanced quiet singing, creating soft music that floats lightly in the air.

Also making his Ravinia debut that night was Roberto Alagna, a tenor with beautiful tonal qualities, who created both a bold fighter and a passionate lover. His “Celeste Aida” was glorious, and when Moore and Alagna are about to die together, their heartfelt love was realized with power and pathos.

Amneris, the Egyptian princess who also loves Radames, was sung by mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung. She created palpable fury when she learned her slave had won the heart of Radames, and created radiant phrases when her lover was consigned to death.

Morris Robinson, a regular at Ravinia who never fails to please, was splendid as the high priest Ramfis. His rich, resonant bass was gripping and full of muscle.

Filling out the cast was James Creswell as the King of Egypt, Joshua Guerrero as the Messenger, Sara Murphy as the Priestess and Mark Delavan as Amonasro.

Conlon lead the proceedings with flair. The instrumentalists blanketed the singers with textured orchestral color, with the trumpets gleaming at the front sides of the stage for the famous Triumphal March.

The Chicago Symphony Chorus, prepared by director Duain Wolfe, expertly accompanied the proceedings.

For information on upcoming Ravina concerts, visit Ravinia.org.

The Grant Park Chorus traveled south last week for a free concert at the South Shore Cultural Center. The north room, featuring loads of tall windows and two remarkable chandeliers, was standing room only for the intermissionless concert of primarily 20th century a cappella music.

The concert opened with “My Soul, There is a Country” by Charles Hubert Parry, a Victorian polymath who was knighted by Queen Victoria. Grant Park Chorus director Christopher Bell brought out the prettiness of the music, which featured heavenly sound from the sopranos.

My favorite work of the evening was “Dum medium silentium” by the Lithuanian composer Vytautas Miskinis. The music had velvety softness that grew into roaring sound.

The basses here, as throughout the evening, were fantastic. Bell drew out the enchanting close dissonances, creating a gripping performance.

Also by Miskinis, “Pater Noster” was multi-layered, and “O Sacrum Convivium” had a lovely, floating stillness.

English composer Colin Mawby’s “Alleluia, Christus Resurrexit” built quickly to a tremendously powerful sound.

Three excerpts from Rachmaninoff’s “All-Night Vigil Service” yielded magisterial sound, putting you in mind of a service fit for a czar.

If singing in Russian wasn’t impressive enough, the chorus took on Estonian with two songs by Veljo Tormis. The works had mystery, romance and intriguing complexity.
Chicago composer Stacy Garrop was represented on the program with her “Sonnets of Desire, Longing and Whimsy,” set to poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. “Time Does Not Bring Relief,” the middle part of this trilogy, created beauty out of heartache.

The program closed with “I Have Had Singing” by Steven Sametz, a short but pleasing work drenched in nostalgia.

Bell offered witty and informative commentary throughout the concert, explaining aspects of the music that heightened the audience’s ability to appreciate what they heard. The audience clearly loved the entire package, with many leaving their seats to offer a standing ovation, even before the last strains of music were over.

The Grant Park Music Festival is described in their literature as “the nation’s only free outdoor classical music series of its kind.” The Festival has been offering concerts since 1935.

This year there’s a familiar face helping out with the Festival. Hyde Parker Estlin Usher, a recent graduate of the University of Chicago, is working there this summer. He worked three years for University of Chicago Presents, ending up as house manager. For the GPMF he’s a jack-of-all-trades, working on logistics, and technical and mechanical matters, as well as sometimes helping in the sound box. Estlin would like to become a composer and a conductor, so it’s great that he has a chance to work for such vibrant groups as the Grant Park Music Festival and University of Chicago Presents.

The GPMF continues through Aug. 17. Visit gpmf.org for more information.