A Whispering Climax To Grant Park’s Summer

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The summer concert season at Chicago's Grant Park Music Festival wound to a close with Elgar's 'The Kingdom.' (Christopher Neseman)
Summer concerts at Chicago’s Grant Park Music Festival came to a close with Elgar’s ‘The Kingdom.’ (C. Neseman)
By Kyle MacMillan

CHICAGO — Summer festivals and, indeed, most classical-music organizations, like to end their seasons with a flash and bang – a strong memory that will carry over and draw audiences back for the next concert lineup. That often means big, showy works like Olivier Messiaen’s all-encompassing Turangalîla-symphonie or Gustav Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand.

To a point, Chicago’s 80-year-old Grant Park Music Festival followed that model on Aug. 21 and 22 with the final offerings of its 2015 season, programming a 100-minute work for orchestra and chorus with more than 150 performers onstage. But in many ways, the selection was an unlikely one – English composer Edward Elgar’s The Kingdom (1901-06) — a little-known, five-part biblical oratorio that centers around the original Day of Pentecost and the activities of the apostles immediately following Christ’s resurrection.

Artistic director Carlos Kalmar likes to defy expectations in his programs. (Patrick Pyszka)
Kalmar prefers programs that defy expectations. (Patrick Pyszka)

The improbability of the work’s selection may be one of the reasons that artistic director and principal conductor Carlos Kalmar, who likes to defy expectations, decided to program it, and the festival deserves kudos for such artistic derring-do. In addition, the sensitively realized performance by Kalmar and his fine forces certainly made a convincing case for The Kingdom’s bright, easy-on-the-ears romanticism. While it will probably never rank among the great choral masterpieces, it definitely deserves to be dusted off now and again.

But it is hard not to second-guess the timing. This piece would have been ideal earlier in the summer line-up, but scheduling it as a finale put more of a question mark at the end of the season than the usually desired exclamation point. Elgar is something of a peripheral composer in this country, with just a few of his works, such as the Enigma Variations and the Cello Concerto in E minor, enjoying regular performances. The success of his first and best-known oratorio, The Dream of Gerontius (1900), which Grant Park presented in 2009, helped spark the creation of The Kingdom, but the latter has never found similar favor. Elgar’s lack of broad name recognition and the relative obscurity of this oratorio probably explain why attendance, while good, did not match some of the overflow crowds that the festival drew earlier in the summer to the Frank Gehry-designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion, a sprawling amphitheater near Lake Michigan with the city’s skyline as a backdrop.

Edward Elgar
Elgar meant ‘The Kingdom’ to be part of a trilogy.

More importantly, The Kingdom can be seen as almost an exact opposite to, say, Giuseppe Verdi’s operatic Requiem with all its fire and damnation, a work which served as Grant Park’s closer in 2011. Elgar’s oratorio, originally intended to be the middle section of an uncompleted epic trilogy chronicling the lives of the apostles, certainly has its bold moments, such as an ensemble section in Part V which includes the line, “Lord, behold their threatenings.” Yet for most the part, muscular moments are short-lived and almost always give way quickly to softer, more placid passages. The emotional power of this piece lies not in its muscularity but in its subtlety. Indeed, for all the work’s considerable scale, The Kingdom is surprisingly intimate, a quality that was lost or at least hindered at times in this vast outdoor venue with its unavoidable ambient noise and, on Aug. 21, an unusually large number of annoying helicopters passing overhead.

The work’s lack of overt drama – there is no villain, no real clash of good and evil – and the absence of memorable sections akin to the “Hallejulah Chorus” from Messiah (though there have to be choirs that have excerpted Elgar’s affecting setting of the “Our Father” near the end) probably explain why this oratorio has received its share of criticism going all the way back to its debut. But at the same time, the work has also had its champions, like famed British conductor Adrian Boult, and it is not hard to understand why. The piece possesses a compelling sense of unity, and though it might be more narrative and reflective than grandly dramatic and effusive, it works on its own terms.

Soprano Erin Wall - 'Praiseworthy moments aplenty' (Norman Timonera)
Soprano Erin Wall: ‘Praiseworthy moments aplenty.’ (N. Timonera)

To his credit, Kalmar met this work on those terms, burrowing into its insular emotional core and shaping a refined, well-balanced interpretation. Deserving particular kudos was the Grant Park Chorus. Ably prepared by guest director Donald Nally, it demonstrated a genuine affinity for this work, delivering moments of power when necessary but, more importantly, realizing the many quiet, reflective moments with minutely shaded dynamics and phrasing, and real emotional depth. The Grant Park Orchestra, an ensemble drawn from an array of major orchestras around the country, provided strong support throughout.

For the most part, the four solo roles do not so much offer individual showcases to the singers but rather serve the larger whole and move along the story. The most notable exception comes in Part IV with Mary’s extraordinary, prayerful aria, which in the hands of soprano Erin Wall was every bit the stirring highlight that it should be. The silvery-voiced Wall, a regular soloist with the festival and the Lyric Opera of Chicago, is a perceptive singer who infused every line with nuance and emotional force. There were praiseworthy moments aplenty, from her hushed take on the opening line, ‘The sun goeth down,” to the evocatively mystical shadings she brought to the phrase “the night watches,” to the way she spat out the words “they kill and crucify.”

Bass-baritone Alfred Walker sang Peter with 'an apt sense of wonderment.' (N. Timonera)
Alfred Walker as Peter: ‘Apt sense of wonderment.’ (N. Timonera)

Likewise, bass-baritone Alfred Walker, who possesses a deep, oak-like voice with a comfortable upper register, made the most of his solo role as Peter. In one of several high points, Walker animated his Part III aria with his deliberate style and commendable tonal variety, bringing an apt sense of wonderment to a line that speaks of God’s “mighty works and wonders and signs.” Mezzo-soprano Jill Grove sang the role of Mary Magdalene, but was more frequently heard as a kind of narrator, delivering her words with due clarity and directness. Rounding out the soloists was tenor Garrett Sorenson, who acquitted himself effectively as John.

In keeping with the inward-looking spirit of this oratorio overall, the final section, movingly performed by the Grant Park forces, is quiet and meditative, as the disciples ask for repentance and pray over the breaking of the bread. It ends not with a bang but a whisper.

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.