A trip to South Shore, a journey through the Planets

The Grant Park Chorus offers a free concert this Thursday at the South Shore Cultural Center. Pictured is the chorus at last year's free concert, led by Christopher Bell.

The Grant Park Chorus offers a free concert this Thursday at the South Shore Cultural Center. Pictured is the chorus at last year’s free concert, led by Christopher Bell.

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Summer in Chicago is a time of free outdoor enjoyment. For classical music lovers, the main venues are Millennium Park and Ravinia. But the South Shore Cultural Center has already had some splendid offerings at no charge. Last week, the Grant Park Orchestra traveled to the South Shore Cultural Center, and this week the Grant Park Chorus appears there.

The anchor work on the program last Friday in the cultural center’s Paul Robeson Theater was “The Planets” by Gustav Holst. The composer had an interest in astrology and first conceived the composition in 1913 and completed its seven sections in 1917. The opening allegro, entitled “Mars, the Bringer of War,” was, coincidentally, finished shortly before the outbreak of World War I. “The Planets” had its world premiere in London, and its first American performances took place shortly thereafter in New York and Chicago (the latter performance was conducted by the CSO’s Frederick Stock).

Holst wrote of the suite, “These pieces were suggested by the astrological significance of the planets. There is no program music in them, neither have they any connection with the deities of the classical mythology bearing the same names.” Yet the music is so evocative of a story, it’s understandable that many listeners do find it to be program music of the highest order.

Mei-Ann Chen, the music director of the Memphis Symphony and the Chicago Sinfonietta, was the guest conductor of the Grant Park Orchestra. She was adept in drawing out the big surging elements in the music and never stinted in the fortissimos.

She infused “Mars” with lots of power although she didn’t find all the compelling menace of the score. There was more depth and nuance in “Venus, the Bringer of Peace” which featured solid solo work by the concertmaster and first chair cello.

She brought out the inherent impishness of “Mercury, the Winged Messenger” and the orchestra had a perfect lightness of touch at the end. Chen’s greatest achievement in the Holst was in “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity,” which was entirely persuasive with its creamy smoothness.

The long pulses were performed admirably in “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age,” but it was too ponderous and missing a sense of mystery. Similarly, “Uranus, the Magician” lacked sufficient magic, substituting a clock-work approach.

In the concluding “Neptune, the Mystic,” Chen found the ethereal aspects and highlighted them well. The entrance of the woman’s chorus was other-worldly and since they sang just outside the hall, this added the sense of a hovering presence.

This concert without an intermission began with two short works, each just under ten minutes.

I was utterly charmed by “Dances in the Canebrakes” by Florence Price. Chen conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s first performance of Price’s “Mississippi River” last June, and I was delighted to hear her conduct more of Price’s music, as it is too-seldom programmed. This piece, written for piano, was performed in the orchestra version created by William Grant Still. Price and Still, two barrier-breaking African American composers, understood each other’s work well. Still’s orchestration is full of color and depth.

The orchestra made the most of the lilting melodies with the dance elements made engaging. The woodwinds were pretty, the strings cheery and the brass jolly, with mutes deftly used for effect.

This may not be Price’s best music, but it is unquestionably lovely. She didn’t write African American music, but American music, and this piece evokes Americana in a most enjoyable way.

The concert opened with “Starburst” by American composer Jonathan Leshnoff (b. 1973). It was commissioned jointly by the Kansas City Symphony, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Fundación Orquesta de Extremadura (Spain) and completed in 2009.

It opened with agitated passages, and the focus of the music shifted easily throughout the orchestra. The fusillades in the brass were bracing and a late string melody tilted toward the romantic. The work had several slow builds to big moments, which Chen effected with vigor. The biggest moment was the tumultuous and satisfying conclusion.

The Grant Park Music Festival offers another free concert at the South Shore Cultural Center this Thursday at 7 p.m. when Christopher Bell leads the Grant Park Chorus in a concert of a cappella music. On the program: John Tavener’s “Funeral Ikos” and “The Lamb,” Whitacre’s “Leonardo Dreams of his Flying Machine,” Tchaikovsky’s “The Legend “and “The Cherubic Hymn” (No 6, from Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom), as well as works by MacMillan, Abbie Betinis and Ben Parry. Visit grantparkmusicfestival.com for more information.