Compelling composition in clerical garb

Soprano Christine Goerke (left) and mezzo-soprano Jill Groves were among the soloists in the Grant Park Music Festival's performance of the "Glagolitic Mass."
Soprano Christine Goerke (left) and mezzo-soprano Jill Groves were among the soloists in the Grant Park Music Festival’s performance of the “Glagolitic Mass.”

-Arielle Doneson (Goerke) and Dario Acosta (Groves)

Classical Music Critic

Hans von Bülow, the 19th century German conductor, pianist and composer, famously declared that Verdi’s Requiem was an “opera in clerical garb.” The same might be said of Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass, although the Slavic nationalism of this towering work is equally present. The Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus, along with four fine soloists, offered a marvelous performance of this late Janacek work last Saturday night at the Pritzker Pavilion, in spite of being challenged by pesky rain which managed to find its way even to the skirt of the performing stage, appearing to threaten the performance. But a short delay brought good news. The rain subsided and the show went on.

The composer of the Glagolitic Mass had discarded religion and the splendid program notes by Richard E. Rodda include this no-holds-barred declaration by Janacek: that he would not enter a church “even to get out of the rain… [They are] the essence of death. Graves under the flagstones, all kinds of torture and death in the paintings. The rituals, the prayers, the chants — death and death again! I won’t have anything to do with it!”

The Millennium Park audience had no church from which to seek refuge from the rain, and had they done so they would have missed a truly magnificent performance.

In spite of his views on religion, Janacek did write a mass, but he rejected the traditional Latin mass in favor of one based on the Old Slavonic service. The text he set is Old Church Slavonic (the “Glagolitic” of the title refers to the name of old script in which the text was originally written). It was completed in 1926 — only two years before his death — and premiered in 1927.

The Glagolitic Mass is a nine-movement work constructed as an arc. The opening and closing movements are wholly orchestral and the very middle movement, Veruju (Credo), is the longest.

Carlos Kalmar, the artistic director and principal conductor of the Grant Park Music Festival, was wonderful on the podium. From the very first moments the color and drama of the music were perfectly drawn.

The orchestra was vibrant and supple. The strings had just the right darkness while the woodwinds found those fleeting moments of sweetness. Bold authority from brass and percussion added gravitas.

When the double chorus entered in the second movement, it was clear that chorus director Christopher Bell had prepared his forces with great care. They sang with clarity and displayed an ease with the fascinating rhythms to which the text is set. Their sound was powerful and luxuriant.

The four soloists were aptly chosen. Soprano Christine Goerke had soaring high notes and an unerring sense of the work’s drama. Tenor Garrett Sorenson was adept in plaintive moments even if sounding a little strained at the top.

Janacek gave the two lower solo voices less work, but the performers were striking in how glorious they sounded in their brief vocal appearances. Bass-baritone Shenyang was magnificent in shaping his lines with rich resonance, and mezzo-soprano Jill Grove was the embodiment of beautiful singing.

The penultimate movement is scored for solo organ and David Schrader thundered through the disquieting music with ease.

The concert opened with Samuel Barber’s “Fadograph of a Yestern Scene,” a seldom-performed work composed in 1971. Kalmar gave the seven-minute piece a quiet yet shimmering treatment which ended in a whisper.

Also on the program was Haydn’s Symphony No. 98. The opening movement was bright and sunny followed by the Adagio which was rendered appropriately murky. The false endings made for a few moments of good humor as Kalmar would partly turn to the audience with a grin, as if to say, “no, it’s not done quite yet.”

Saturday night’s rain may have tested both performers and audiences alike, but in the end all was well. At Wrigley Field when it begins to rain, the tarps are brought out to protect the field. At the Pritzker Pavilion, when the rain actually made its way to the stage, the huge glass doors were closed for a time, to keep the performing area dry. After a delay of only 15 minutes, the skies cleared, the doors opened and the music played.

The Grant Park Music Festival’s annual Independence Day concert takes place this year on Independence Day itself, beginning at 6:30 p.m. at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. Christopher Bell will conduct the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus in a program which includes Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” and “Canticle of Freedom,” Bernstein’s “West Side Story” Suite No. 2, Gershwin’s “Strike Up the Band” Overture, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” It will also be broadcast live on WFMT, 98.7 FM. Visit for more information.