Bold Chicago Fest Revives Martinů’s ‘Epic Of Gilgamesh’

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Ambitious large-scale rarities are often the concert fare at the Grant Park Music Festival. (Christopher Neseman)
By Marta Tonegutti

CHICAGO – The programming at Chicago’s Grant Park Music Festival under artistic director and principal conductor Carlos Kalmar is nothing if not ambitious. He delights in taking on lesser-known, large-scale works that other venues rarely present because of their complexity and expense.

Such ambition might seem at odds with the festival milieu – an al fresco downtown setting on Lake Michigan where several hundred patrons can listen under the spectacular canopy of Pritzker Pavilion, designed by Frank Gehry, while thousands more picnic under the stars on a green space with an elegant system of sound reinforcement.

Pike,Thomas, Meade, Saks (Norman Timonera)
Dane Thomas, Gidon Saks, David John Pike as Gilgamesh, and Angela Meade.
(Norman Timonera)

Yet Chicagoans turn out in great numbers for Kalmar’s generally inspired programming, designed around themes and ideas and supported by the strengths of the solid orchestra, chorus, and well-chosen guest performers. A good example of this commitment to the kind of demanding yet appealing mid-twentieth-century repertoire that audiences might easily embrace was the July 2 concert that featured Bohuslav Martinů’s The Epic of Gilgamesh. A powerful oratorio for orchestra, chorus, and four soloists, it was composed in 1955 to the words of the ancient Assyrian epic celebrating the Sumerian King Gilgamesh.

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Martinů was influenced by Stravinsky’s neoclassicism. (Wiki)

Martinů’s austere and commanding score for Gilgamesh owes much to Stravinsky’s mature neoclassical idiom, but he inflects it with the colorful orchestral palette, driving rhythms, and haunting melodies of traditional Czech music.

This compact work is in three parts and alternates segments for orchestra, chorus, and the four soloists. In the opening bars, sustained pianissimo unisons are heard in the strings, against which the melody slowly takes shape in section after section of the orchestra. Then it explodes in the cry “Gilgamesh,” sung by the bass soloist and full chorus.

Unsettling rhythmic effects and elaborate use of percussive instruments, including a solo piano, are among Martinů’s signature traits. Another is his powerfully idiomatic vocal writing: In the oratorio’s closing section, chorus and soloists join together to deliver a lament (“Aye, I saw, I saw!”) as poignant as any in Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex or Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron.

Fragment from the Gilgamesh epic. (Sulaymaniyah Museum, Iraq)

One of the last century’s most prolific composers, Martinů wrote his Gilgamesh oratorio toward the end of his life, after his return to France from years spent teaching and composing in America during and after World War II. Drawing on his passion for classical history and literature, Martinů mined the epic built around the historical figure of the Sumerian king who ruled the city-state of Uruk around 2700 B.C.E.

Loved but also hated by his people for his iron fist, the Gilgamesh of the legend is challenged by Enkidu, a man whom the gods created for this purpose and who is as strong as a wild beast. In a deeply human tale, after their initial fighting, the two forge a bond that teaches Gilgamesh the values of friendship and brings him to recognize, after his friend’s tragic death, his own mortality and vulnerability.

The Grant Park performance employed the English text that Martinů initially set to music, although he later sought to substitute a Czech translation of the epic. The Czech text is now standard in most recordings of the work, but Kalmar’s choice seemed a sensible one given the festival setting.

The four excellent soloists gave intensely affecting performances: the tenor Dane Thomas as Enkidu, the baritone David John Pike as Gilgamesh, and the luminous soprano Angela Meade in the double role of the courtesan who seduces Enkidu and the goddess of love, Ishtar, whom Gilgamesh rejects, thus offending the gods who demand Enkidu’s death in revenge. The renowned bass-baritone Gidon Saks, together with the chorus, narrated and commented upon the action, while a speaking narrator summarized the longer stretches. The Grant Park Chorus, prepared by Christopher Bell, sang with great vocal prowess. All the performers, under Carlos Kalmar’s assured baton, gave a stirring account of an important choral work that deserves to be heard more frequently.

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Artistic director Kalmar’s theme – Czech works inspired by legend.
(Patrick Pyszka)

Dvořák’s plaintive, haunting symphonic poem The Golden Spinning Wheel set the tone for the evening with its subtle evocation of traditional folk tales and folk-inflected sound-worlds. As Kalmar recounted before the performance, the piece takes inspiration from a Czech legend in which the beautiful Dornicka, whom the king wishes to marry, is killed and dismembered by her jealous step-mother and sister, who at the wedding passes herself off as Dornicka. While the king is off to war, an old man finds the body in the forest and asks the sister for the feet, hands and eyes in return for a golden spinning wheel. The old man then brings Dornicka back to life and, after the magic wheel spins out its tale and betrays the murderers, she and the king are finally reunited.

Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra captured the liquid, shimmering sonorities of Dvořák’s delicately textured score.

Marta Tonegutti is the acquisitions editor for music at the University of Chicago Press and managing editor of The Works of Guiseppe Verdi. Her reviews have been published in the Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Classical Review and Chicago On the Aisle.