Native American Songs Lend Spirit To New Symphony

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Carlos Kalmar led Chicago's Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus in Bunch's 'Dream Songs' Symphony.
Carlos Kalmar led Chicago’s Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus in Bunch’s ‘Dream Songs’ Symphony. (Norman Timonera)
By Kyle MacMillan

CHICAGO — The Grant Park Music Festival, which takes place in the Frank Gehry-designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion, an 11-year-old amphitheater with the city’s skyline as a backdrop, presents plenty of familiar, crowd-pleasing selections each summer. But taking advantage of a funding structure that allows the organization the luxury of offering almost entirely free admission to its concerts, principal conductor Carlos Kalmar makes a point of mixing in new and off-beat works as well. Indeed, that musical adventurism has helped the festival gain a distinctive identity and set itself apart from the bigger, better-known Ravinia Festival — the area’s other main summer classical presenter in the nearby suburb of Highland Park.

Kenji Bunch uses eight Native American texts in his Third Symphony.
Kenji Bunch uses eight Native American texts in his Third Symphony.

After a season-opening program featuring mainstays by Rachmaninoff and Beethoven, Kalmar and the festival quickly broke from the tried and true on June 19 and 20 with a world premiere by Kenji Bunch — Symphony No. 3: “Dream Songs.” More than 50 American orchestras have performed works by the 41-year-old composer, who moved back to his native Portland, Ore., in 2013 and recently became artistic director of Portland’s new-music group fEarNoMusic. The commission was funded by the $75,000 Prince Prize for Commissioning Original Work, which Bunch and the festival received from the Prince Charitable Trusts in 2014.

As its subtitle implies, the 30-minute Symphony No. 3 is really more of a symphonic song cycle along the lines of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth). But instead of two vocal soloists, “Dream Songs” is written for chorus. It follows in a long tradition of classical works that in some way engage Native American themes and musical idioms in part as a response to Dvořák’s challenge to American composers in the late 19th century to shape their own, indigenous musical aesthetic. The last decade has seen a burst of such cross-cultural orchestral works like Mark Grey’s Enemy Slayer: A Navajo Oratorio, Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate’s Nitoshi’ Imali, Randall Craig Fleischer’s Echoes and Robert Kapilow’s Summer Sun, Winter Moon.

But unlike those pieces, which draw on American Indian musical themes in some way, Bunch chose to use eight Native American texts grouped into three sections and set them using his own musical language. (There was no mention of any Native American musical influences in the program notes and none were discernible.) These uncredited texts from such tribes as the Chippewa, Sioux, and Navajo were collected at the turn of the last century by the Bureau of American Ethnology, and several were translated by famed anthropologist and ethnographer Frances Densmore. With their rhetorical cadences, evocative imagery, and poetic simplicity, they contributed considerable expressive power to this work.

Frank Gehry designed Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago's Grant Park. (Christopher Neseman)
Frank Gehry designed Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago’s Grant Park. (Christopher Neseman)

Bunch has created an atmospheric score that is predominantly spare and elusive but at times builds to moments that are rich, full, and almost cinematic, such as the climax of “Where the Fight Was.” Rather than accompany the chorus in a traditional sense, the orchestra often weaves a kind of soundscape around the singing, offering musical accents as much as full-fledged motifs – ominous bass lines, staccato plucks of the harp, or percussive effects in the extreme high register of the piano. Reappearing in “Ghost Dance,” “Prayer,” and elsewhere is the solitary flute – a sometimes questioning, sometimes ethereal yet always reassuring voice. The chorus is at times a distant, ghostly presence, as it is at the beginning in “Song of Wandering,” and at other times, it is assertive, even angry.

While “Dream Songs” is certainly well crafted and offers some striking moments, little about it is particularly startling or distinctive. Little lingers in memory. It does not help that the structure of many of the sections seems too repetitive — quiet, emphatic, and then quiet again. It was hard not to leave this piece without wanting something more — originality,  expressive depth, dramatic impact.

Kenji Bunch as created an atmospheric score for 'Dreams.'
Kenji Bunch as created an atmospheric score for ‘Dreams.’

That said, “Dream Songs” received a committed, fully realized performance from Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra (musicians gathered from top professional orchestras across the country) and Chorus (an auditioned group of some of the Chicago region’s finest singers). Kalmar drew nuanced, incisive playing from the orchestra, with the strong, well-prepared chorus vividly conjuring the work’s fleeting, ever-changing moods and deftly responding to its all-important dynamic shifts.

Yet despite the commendable efforts of the musicians and singers, it cannot in fairness be said that this piece got the best showcase. Some of its delicate subtleties were inevitably lost in the vast outdoor setting, no matter how good the pavilion’s amplification is. At the same time, there were more distracting ambient noises than usual, including a recurring one from beyond the east side of the amphitheater that sounded like loud electric pruning shears. In addition, it was an unusually chilly evening (weather that kept many potential attendees away and forced many of those who did come to flee at intermission), making it hard to comfortably focus on the music. This work deserves another hearing in more accommodating circumstances.

The evening opened with a suitably light, buoyant reading of Mozart’s overture to The Magic Flute and ended with an involving take on Shostakovich’s Symphony No 6. While the performance of the latter could have used a bit more grit, the orchestra nonetheless captured the pained beauty and long lines of the slow opening movement and the manic, sometimes unpredictable energy and thrust of the two fast movements.

Kyle MacMillan recently marked his 25th anniversary as a music critic and reporter. After serving 11 years as fine arts critic for the Denver Post, he is now a freelance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and writes for such national publications as Opera News and The Wall Street Journal.