Grant Park Chorus shines at South Shore Cultural Center

Conductor Christopher Bell congratulates composer Lita Grier during a concert of the Grant Park Chorus at the South Shore Cultural Center.  (Photo by Robert Kameczura)

Classical Music Critic

A concert on the South Side by the Grant Park Chorus has become an annual event, and it was no surprise that a large crowd filled the South Shore Cultural Center to hear it. Word has gotten out that this is a splendid event, and it is made even more attractive by being free.

Christopher Bell is the chorus director of the Grant Park Music Festival and also one of its finest ambassadors. Not only does he have superb conducting skills, he’s a man who connects to audiences with his witty spoken remarks. His only misstep at Monday night’s concert was his attempt to make a concert featuring only women composers seem like an ordinary event. He might have gotten away with it if after saying that he wouldn’t be mentioning that fact more than once he then went ahead and said it again. Yes, it was a big deal and pretending that it wasn’t seemed rather silly.

The concert was yet another fine outing by a talented group of singers and the musical fare was remarkably robust and wide-ranging, helped by the fact that among several relatively recent compositions were those of two 19th Century composers who made a name for themselves in spite of being overshadowed by their relatives: Fanny Mendelssohn (sister of Felix) and Clara Schumann (wife of Robert).

The concert opened with “Rorate Coeli” by Thea Musgrave. In brief remarks before the piece Bell, in a striking dark jacket with dramatic, electric-orange doodle stripes that wouldn’t look out of place in Elton John’s closet, announced that the composer used “interesting techniques” in a work based on a text including “Drop down dew, ye heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain on the just.”

It was powerful, unusual music that had the chorus at times variously sounding like a choir, a mob, an army, and a fractious parliament. Bell emphasized the big dynamic changes, and the work’s drama was always palpable.

Clara Schumann’s Three Mixed Choruses highlighted how that composer had a gift for marrying text to music, as if the words had always been waiting for her musical treatment. “Abendfeier in Venedig” (“Vespers in Venice”) was gorgeous and seemed to speak directly from the heavens. “Vorwärts” (“Onward”) was energetic and tripped along at a bracing pace that never seemed hurried. “Gondoliera” (“Gondola Song”) was vigorous as the chorus brought to life a story with charming text, including “the air is as soft as love’s teasing.”

This was followed by “A Wreath of Blessings” by Louise Talma, a work not performed in its entirety, Bell told us, since 1993. Talma was a friend of Leonard Bernstein’s but had a voice all her own. The five different settings in the work showcased her range and her intriguing use of dissonance. The chorus was robust and they were particularly adept at navigating the fascinating surges in sound and drama.

Fanny Mendelssohn’s “Nachtreigen” (“Night Round Dance”) was given a charming light touch and featured women-only sections followed by men-only sections representing a dialogue. Before Mendelssohn was married to Wilhelm Hensel, he wrote her a poem about an engaged couple anticipating future happiness. This served as her text, and not only love was infused in the music, but sunniness and laughter as well. The chorus found all the joy.

Caroline Shaw (a member of the ensemble A Roomful of Teeth) was represented on the program with her work “And the Swallow.” It was calming and beautiful and the repeated words had the effect of recreating the sound of soft flapping wings. It also featured some very artistic humming, which might sound cheeky, but the effect was glorious.

Only one of the composers on the program was from Chicago. This struck me as an opportunity missed, since we have an abundance of talented composers. But Bell selected a fine one to represent the Windy City. Lita Grier (b. 1937), who was at the concert, is an interesting composer, one whose work might have been lost to time. She won the first prize in the New York Philharmonic’s Young Composer’s Contest when she was only 16 and the work was performed at Carnegie Hall and published by the prestigious Carl Fischer.

She is a graduate of Juilliard and she subsequently studied at Tanglewood with Lukas Foss and also studied with Aaron Copland and Roy Harris. But she left composition behind her for decades and when she eventually returned after 30 years, has had remarkable success, almost unheard of in contemporary practice.

Her piece, “About Living,” has a text written by Mattie J.T. Stepanek, who had seven best-selling books of poetry and essays before he died in 2004 from a rare neuromuscular disease. What is remarkable and tragic about the writer is that he was only 14 at the time of his death.

What might have been a mawkish work in other hands is a beautiful statement of hope and love in Grier’s. This anthem is simple, evocative, warm, and inspiring, and the chorus drew on these strengths, honoring not only the composer but the young man who had penned the words. The final words are “for now,” which died away quietly, highlighting the inexorability of death, but not the fear which sometimes accompanies it.

Grier has always followed her own path, writing music that is primarily tonal and easily accessible to audiences. She told the Herald, “As I hear it, we are now living in a post-serial world. Minimalism was the first to plant the flag of tonality back on the musical map. But by now this is yesterday’s news. Today, the guardrails have all fallen. In my own music. I can be who I am — predominantly tonal, though I move in and out of tonality for expressive purposes.”

Melinda Wagner’s “From a Book of Early Prayers” was at times haunting and featured fascinating layers of sound.

The only true disappointment of the evening was “Hands” by Lori Laitman, a world premiere which was commissioned to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Carlos Kalmar becoming principal conductor of the Grant Park Orchestra. From the beginning it was flashy and full of bombast. But the music seemed at odds with the text and it started so big that from there found nowhere to go.

The concert closed with another work by Musgrave, “On the Underground.” This was a collection of three short pieces. The final one, “The Subway Piranhas” was hilarious and effective and meant that audience members left the Cultural Center with smiles on their faces.

Yet another triumph for Christopher Bell and the Grant Park Chorus.