By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic
In recent years the Grant Park Chorus has made a regular stop at the South Shore Cultural Center for an annual a cappella concert led by its chorus director Christopher Bell. Last Thursday Bell and the chorus returned to the South Side for another splendid evening of carefully selected choral music.
The Grant Park Chorus is one of the ornaments of summer music in Chicago, singing with commitment and a beautifully rounded sound. The group displays an admirable level of musicianship and has a fine ability to communicate both the text and the feeling of the music.
The concert was enhanced by a running commentary by Bell, a man who knows how to draw an audience in with his storytelling and also knows how to get them to laugh. Particularly amusing were his remarks after the first number, when he pointed out that the concert was being recorded for later radio broadcast and therefore if the audience wanted to, they could make themselves heard by offering big applause. It worked. Every applause moment was much bigger after his friendly, impish encouragement.
The music, written primarily from the earlier to mid-twentieth century, began with Samuel Barber’s “God’s Grandeur,” set to a text by Gerard Manley Hopkins. It had a bold and bracing opening, with lots of volume and a palpable sense of elation. The slower section highlighted the wonderful blend of the voices and the big range of the group: the high sopranos soared while the basses had good heft and color on the lowest notes. Barber’s music, in only about eight minutes, puts forward the many musical facets of grandeur.
“Faire is the Heaven” by the English composer William Henry Harris is set to a text from “An Hymne of Heavenly Beautie” by Edmund Spenser. Bell drew out gorgeous blooming phrases, and the chorus sang with fluidity and persuasiveness.
Bell then chose from among Anton Bruckner’s large collection of motets, selecting three: “Virga Jesse floruit,” “Christus factus est,” and “Ave Maria.” In the first, there was power in the Latin line meaning “God restoreth peace to men.” The second motet was notable for pleasing darkness of sound and clarity of diction. The final motet was characterized by great dignity.
Perhaps the most familiar work on the program was Benjamin Britten’s “Hymn to St. Cecilia.” This featured remarkable changes from very soft to very loud and was a showcase for the virtuosic nature of the chorus. The imagery of the text shone through, with particular drama in the line, “And around the wicked in Hell’s abysses / The huge flame flickered and eased their pain.” The refrain had an inspirational sound, almost magical in its power.
The soloists for the Britten, drawn from the chorus, were Katelyn Lee, Corrine Wallace-Crane, Eric Buchholz, and Kevin Keys, all of whom performed ably.
Kenneth Leighton’s “God’s Grandeur” was set to same text as the Barber which opened the concert. It had fascinating dissonance and the idea that “nature will prevail” was made clear. The roaring sound at the beginning was potent as was the beautifully done quiet ending.
The concert closed with the five spirituals from Michael Tippett’s “A Child of Our Time.” Bell warned the audience that while the music would be familiar (and of course it was), the arrangements would be unusual. He explained that Englishman Tippett was aiming for just that.
The most moving of the spirituals was “Go Down, Moses” featuring chorus member John Orduña as bass soloist. The other soloists, Saira Frank, Emily Price, and Hoss Brock, were also pleasing.
The spirituals captured aching pain and were encased in the clever musical skin created by Tippett. The audience was enticed and rewarded the group with tremendous applause when the set came to an end.
Bell, who has led the Grant Park Chorus since 2002, is an able conductor and leader as well as an amiable and knowledgeable ambassador for not only the Grant Park Music Festival, but for music itself. It is always a pleasure to see him and his musicians come to the South Side of Chicago. May this continue for many years to come.
The Grant Park Music Festival, which offers free concert primarily in the Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park, continues through Sat., Aug. 18. For more information, visit www.GPMF.org.