Exciting, satisfying close to the Grant Park Music Festival

Photo courtesy of Norman Timonera
Soprano Claire de Sevigne at the closing concert of this year’s Grant Park Music Festival.

Classical Music Critic

Another fine season of music at the Grant Park Music Festival has come to a close. The final concert Saturday night at the Pritzker Pavilion and Great Lawn drew a huge crowd, with lines forming well before that part of Millennium Park opened to the public at 5:30, two hours before the concert began. It has been a long time since I have written about the GPMF from the standpoint of the lawn seating area, and as I had several people who wanted to join me for this concert, we took our place on the lawn to marvel not only at the great music, but the superb sound system and the glorious view one has when seated on the grass.

The final concert featured the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus led by Carlos Kalmar, the artistic director and principal conductor of the festival. The major work on the program was Carl Orff’s popular “Carmina Burana.” The soloists were soprano Claire de Sevigne, tenor Michael Maniaci, and baritone James Westman. Members of Anima—Young Wingers of Greater Chicago (Emily Ellsworth, artistic director) rounded out the complete group of performers.

Orff’s work from the 1930s bears the long title of “Carmina Burana: Cantiones profanæ cantoribus et choris cantandæ comitantibus instrumentis atque imaginibus magicis” (“Songs of Beuern: Secular songs for singers and choruses to be sung together with instruments and magical images”). The medieval texts employed concern a wide variety of subjects (including lust, gluttony, boozing, gambling, springtime joy) but center on the fickle nature of life and the scenic cantata begins and ends with an examination of “Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi” (“Fortune, Empress of the World”).

Kalmar’s forces were well prepared and offered a dramatic, incisive, and exciting performance. The music was potent and polished from the very start, with clear definition from the orchestra and admirable depth from the chorus. The brass was bright, the winds shimmered, and the strings soared. Kalmar generally favored rapid tempos, which work beautifully when the performers are well coordinated, as they were Saturday night.

The soloists were well chosen. Canadian soprano Claire de Sevigne had the goods, offering attractive floating high notes and gorgeous tone. She never sounded forced. When she sang of the radiant young girl, she herself exuded radiance. The “Dulcissime” near the very end of the work found her singing with bird-like beauty and naturalness.

Tenor Michael Maniaci (who also performed as countertenor) had some difficult moments when singing as the swan being roasted. The wide vibrato was not terribly appealing, but his attention to the text was admirable.

Baritone James Westman began the evening with an understated approach in “Omnia sol temperat” which was languid, but he knew how to spring into action and grab your attention. His approach to the tavern solo displayed the antagonism of a drunk along with conveying the foolish nature of excessive drinking. He knew when the music required a kind of silliness and silliness he provided.

The chorus got better and better as the cantata progressed. They sang with flexibility and power and had an invigorating effect. The children’s choir offered sweetness and light.

Overall, the work moved effectively from joy to despair, from frivolity to confusion to resignation. Kalmar ensured that the 25 sections had musical cohesion and clarity.

The program opened with Dvorak’s symphonic poem “The Water Goblin.” Before the music began, Kalmar spoke directly to the audience. Beginning by saying that his wife begged him not to give a speech, he gave a short one that was entertaining and informative. He explained that the fairy tale on which “The Water Goblin” is based is dark and frightening and hardly appropriate for many children. A water goblin ensnares a girl doing laundry at his lake and forces her to become his wife. When she begs to visit her mother, he allows it, but forces their child to remain with him. When she later refuses to return with him, he leaves the headless body of their child on the mother’s doorstep.

Dvorak created an appropriately somber and gloomy score. Yet it begins with sparkle and a clear sense of water, with swirling and flowing orchestral lines. Kalmar showed a mastery of the various moods of the music and was particularly adept at keeping the ominous lower voices smooth rather than murky.

Kalmar also spoke briefly about the musicians of the Grant Park Orchestra and mentioned by name members who have served for decades: Alexander Belavsky, violin (40 years); Joel Cohen, percussion (40 years); Gene Collerd, clarinet and bass clarinet (40 years); and Dale Newton, cello (44 years).

It was a lovely evening and served as a splendid climax to the ten week Grant Park Music Festival.