To Mark A War’s End, A Devout Vision Of Peace
By Kyle MacMillan
CHICAGO – On the list of under-appreciated composers of the 20th century, few names rank higher than that of Frank Martin. The reasons for his relative obscurity are hard to pin down given the diversity and distinctiveness of his output. But it probably does not help that two of the Swiss composer’s best-known works are not, say, a piano concerto or a grand symphony, but more eclectic creations — his Petite symphonie concertante (1945) and Concerto for seven wind instruments, timpani, percussion, and string orchestra (1949).
In addition, Martin (1890-1974) founded neither a musical school nor movement and was not associated with one. While he borrowed elements of Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone system, he never went all the way down the road to serialism, preferring a more idiomatic style that he dubbed “sliding tonality.” In short, he was a kind of outlier like Olivier Messiaen, and it’s no coincidence that the two shared deep religious convictions. (Messiaen was an ardent Catholic; Martin, a devoted Calvinist.) Indeed, music critic and historian Alex Ross ranks the two among the greatest religious composers of the last 200 years – no small praise.
Works by Martin are rare on Chicago programs, and nearly everywhere else, and it is mostly his religious compositions that have been heard in recent years. In 2014, the Wicker Park Choral Singers offered a compelling take on Martin’s Mass for Unaccompanied Double Choir from the 1920s. And on July 28 and 29, principal conductor Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus presented their first performances of the composer’s In terra pax, an affecting four-part oratorio written to celebrate the end of World War II. Its premature premiere, however, actually took place in Geneva on May 5, 1945 – three days before VE Day.
Arguably the most famous choral composition marking the war’s conclusion is Britten’s towering War Requiem, an 85-minute work in which a setting of the traditional Latin mass for the dead is interwoven with nine war poems by English poet Wilfred Owen. It was written for the inaugural 1962 concert of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral, which had been pulverized by Nazi bombs in November 1940. The smaller-scaled In terra pax makes no direct reference to World War II or indeed modern warfare, drawing instead on the visionary imagery of the Book of Revelation and other sections of the Old and New Testaments, as well as familiar prayers.
If the oratorio, which runs about 45 minutes, never achieves the visceral intensity of the War Requiem, it nonetheless delivers its own dramatic punch. No moment is more powerful than section No. 8, which draws on the Book of Isaiah, which Christians believe foreshadowed the coming of Jesus Christ and his crucifixion, including passages used as well by Handel in his Messiah. Martin assigns these words to the mezzo-soprano in what is the longest solo of the work, a pained and intimate soliloquy. In this performance, Lauren Segal potently captured the haunting, inward-looking desolation of this section, drawing forth suitably dark-hued timbres and expressive, lingering phrasing.
Martin is known for lean textures, and for significant stretches of this work, the singers were accompanied by just the winds, brass, or other subset of the orchestra. Also on display were the composer’s penetrating, sometimes even gleaming, harmonies and unusual orchestrations. His scoring, for example, includes prominent roles for the chimes, celesta, and, most importantly, two pianos, which sometimes join other parts of the percussion section in punctuated rhythmic bursts. Unfortunately, the concert’s amplification tended to oddly de-emphasize the pianos, and the celesta could hardly be heard.
But Grant Park’s fine chorus turned in another strong performance, conveying both the power and intimacy of this work with polished technique and obvious commitment. A noteworthy moment came during its suitably gentle, nuanced treatment of Martin’s plaintive setting of the “Lord’s Prayer” in section No. 10. Also acquitting itself well overall was the festival’s orchestra, an ensemble drawn from an array of major orchestras around the country. The soloists, on the other hand, were more uneven, running the spectrum from Segal’s insightful artistry to the largely emotionless declamations of bass Daniel Okulitch. In between were soprano Colleen Daly, baritone James Westman, and tenor David Pomeroy, who had a few moments of shaky intonation but offered an introspective take on the Beatitudes.
If the overall impression left by the performers was largely positive, there was nonetheless a nagging feeling that the oratorio was slightly under-rehearsed. This could be heard, for example, in the way that the soloists sometimes struggled to achieve a unified blend as a group and then coalesce with the larger chorus and orchestra.
The performance was not helped by the vastness of the sleek, Frank Gehry-designed Pritzker Pavilion, a downtown amphitheater located near the shore of Lake Michigan. A few of the work’s quieter moments could not help but lose their intimacy in this setting, especially with the competing ambient noise, like the occasional sirens going by on nearby streets. In addition, the required amplification brought an inevitable artificiality to the sound, and some of the balances seemed off, with the singers periodically sticking out rather than meshing organically with the rest of the forces.
Opening the concert was a solid if unremarkable performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 36 in C major, K. 425, “Linz,” that was hurt by the presence of a hovering helicopter at the end of the first movement and beginning of the second. It was so loud that many audience members were looking up to see where the sound was coming from, drawing their attention away from what was happening onstage.
In his introductory remarks, Kalmar called the program a “typical” one for the Grant Park Music Festival, and, indeed, it was. This adventuresome series has long mixed the familiar and unfamiliar, and it deserves credit for giving audiences a chance to hear one of the major choral works by a composer who deserves to be much better known.
Kyle MacMillan served as the classical-music critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011. He is now a freelance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and Modern Luxury and writes for such national publications as the Wall Street Journal, Opera News, Chamber Music and Early Music America.Date posted: August 1, 2017