Review: An evening of unworldly music

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Schubert’s stirring Mass in E-flat Major was the major work on the Grant Park Music Festival’s program Saturday night. Artistic director and principal conductor Carlos Kalmar presided over a large force: full orchestra, big chorus and five soloists.

The results were splendid. Kalmar found all the majesty and glory in the score and deployed the various musicians with precision. The work lasts nearly an hour, but time flew by, with exciting moments piling on top of each other in rapid succession.

The chorus is the star of this work, and the Grant Park Chorus, prepared by chorus director Christopher Bell, was at its best. The basses were supple and the tenors lean and strong. The sopranos displayed clear tone, even in the most difficult passages, and the altos offered mellowness. Lush sound and subtle phrasing was evident throughout and the balance and diction were notable.

Having recently heard the chorus in an a cappella concert at the South Shore Cultural Center, it was interesting to compare the sound in these two events. Hearing them live is always stimulating, and it’s interesting to note that owing to the vast area of the Great Lawn at Millennium Park (and the outdoor setting) the stage is equipped with an army of microphones so that sound can be projected via speakers throughout the listening area. This means that while the sound is certainly of the highest quality, at times you are put in mind of a recording and not an I-am-there performance. It is a small price to pay —particularly since the price of concerts is zero! — yet occasionally one yearns for an unmediated performance.

The soloists, all currently at Lyric Opera’s Ryan Opera Center, were polished and pleasing. Soprano Emily Birsan had understated elegance and mezzo-soprano Julie Anne Miller sang with poise and vigor. Tenor Adam Bonanni made all the high notes soar, while fellow tenor John Irvin had muscle. Their overlapping lines in the “Credo” were particularly enjoyable. Bass Richard Ollarsaba displayed just the right amount of heft.

The Grant Park Symphony Orchestra provided the bedrock, with Kalmar deftly drawing out the exciting dynamics. The brass were decisive and the low strings potent.

The concert opened with Messiaen’s “Les Offrandes Oubliées (Méditation Symphonique).” The opening featured unworldly and engaging sonorities that quickly shifted to music of a ferocious intensity, bold and bracing. The concluding section evoked gentleness, with long phrases of quiet singing in the violins.

Before the intermission was the Grant Park premiere of James MacMillan’s “The Confession of Isobel Gowdie.” MacMillian, a Scot, drew on the terrible history of Scotland from 1560 to 1707, when thousands of people, mostly women, were executed after having been found guilty of witchcraft.

The work began with complex, shimmering layers of sound, intriguing the listener from the outset. First enchanting, the music gradually becomes ominous, and finally nightmarish, taking us on Isobel’s terrible journey. Soon there was an orchestral scream: a crashing, terrible chord repeated thirteen times. Isobel has been tortured, she has confessed, and she is sentenced to death.

The music gradually returns to the layered structure of the opening and concludes with the intense sound of strings and a loud pop, perhaps suggesting that god sees what has happened.

It was a riveting performance of a wonderful piece of music.

This year’s Grant Park Music Festival comes to a close on Saturday, and you have three more chances to attend a free concert.

Tonight, Wednesday, at 6:30 Valentina Lisitsa performs Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2. Also on the program: Shchedrin’s “Naughty Limericks,” Concerto for Symphony Orchestra, and Borodin’s Symphony No. 2.

The season closes with “The Black Gondola,” by Liszt, “Harmonium” by John Adams, and “The Rite of Spring” by Stravinsky. There are two performances, Fri. at 6:30 p.m. and Sat. at 7:30 p.m.

These concerts all take place at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, and all are free. Visit gpmf.org for more information.
On Thursday, Aug. 15 at 7 p.m. the Chicago Sinfonietta Wind Ensemble and the Sones de México Ensemble Chicago join forces for a concert at the UNO Veterans Memorial Campus (4248 W. 47th St.). The program features classical music by Latin American composers, pieces in such styles as huapango, gustos, and chilenas, a work based on Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, and the world premiere of “Ay Morenita” by Victor Pichardo. A free reception on the terrace with light refreshments immediately follows the concert. Visit chicagosinfonietta.org for more information.