Choral Conferees Catch A Premiere On Tailored Night

Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds, right, takes a bow with Grant Park Festival artistic director and principal conductor
Carlos Kalmar at the world premiere of ‘The Pleiades.’ (Photo by Charles Osgood)
By Kyle MacMillan

CHICAGO – Freed of the constraints of a fall-to-spring line-up and typically graced with more adventuresome audiences, summer music series often take on more contemporary and offbeat repertoire. That is certainly the case with the Grant Park Music Festival under the leadership of artistic director and principal conductor Carlos Kalmar.

A good example of the festival’s out-of-the-mainstream approach was its June 20 choral-orchestral concert in the Frank Gehry-designed Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago’s Millennium Park. It combined two staples with a little-known 1937 work by idiosyncratic French composer Olivier Messiaen and a world premiere by Ēriks Ešenvalds. The noted choral composer was born in 1977 in a rural Latvian town about 120 miles west of Riga, the country’s capital.

The Grant Park Festival world premiere was given during Chorus America’s conference.
(Christopher Neseman)

Because the concert took place in conjunction with the Chorus America conference, which ran here June 20-23, all four selections were choral works, and all four looked in some way to the heavens – one drawing on classical mythology, another Native American mythology, and two others the Hebrew and Latin bibles. If these stylistically disparate pieces fit together a bit awkwardly, they nonetheless effectively showed off the skill and versatility of the fine Grant Park Chorus, which consisted of 93 voices for this program. The 55-year-old professional ensemble shares singers with such other top-rank groups as the choruses of Lyric Opera of Chicago and Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

The concert culminated in Ešenvalds’ The Pleiades, which runs about 36 minutes and makes use of a series of Native American texts related to the celebrated constellation. “The aurora borealis, sea, sky, volcanoes and stars have all been featured in my music,” wrote the composer in an accompanying statement, “with myths and legends from around the world providing wonderful stories and texts. The Pleiades star cluster has triggered the imagination of people for centuries and gave me an excellent subject.”

The Pleiades star cluster in the Northern winter sky. (NASA JPL/Caltech/UCLA)

After an opening section with a simple statement of a Zuni tune, atmospherically embellished with such percussion as vibraphone and crotales, the rest of the evocative work – apparently not drawing on Native American melodies except for the short prologue – alternates between meditative, inward-looking sections and others that were up-tempo and ebullient. Kalmar and the orchestra and chorus delivered an energetic, fully involved reading. Highlights included Ešenvalds’ driving, impetuous take on an Inuit myth, “Nanuk the Bear,” with its full-bodied strings and grand, dramatic feel, as well as the quiet, almost mystical adaptation of “Pawnee Song to the Pleiades.”

The Pleiades joins an increasing number of compositions presented by symphony orchestras across the United States that draw on Native American music and stories. But when non-Indian composers attempt such cross-cultural projects, they have to take into account the dangers of stereotyping and cultural violation. And it is not clear how aware Ešenvalds was of such dynamics. For the most part, he does not make use of traditional music in this piece, although he does borrow a series of Native American stories, and it is easy to wonder about the appropriateness of at least one of them.

One that seems troubling, out of touch with today’s cultural sensibilities, is “Seven Dancers,” taken from a 1912 publication The Book of Woodcraft and Indian Lore by Ernest Thompson Seton. The opening line alone, “Once there were seven little Indian boys . . . ,” is tone deaf at best. It is surprising that Ešenvalds apparently did not partner with a Native American poet or historian to help him assemble the text for this project, to avoid such potential missteps.

Boy soprano Bryce Abend was featured in Bernstein’s ‘Chichester Psalms.’ (Osgood)

The high point of the first half – and perhaps the entire concert – was Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, a popular work written in 1965 as a commission from the dean of Chichester Cathedral for England’s Southern Cathedrals Festival. Although the program makes no note of it, the piece marks the centennial of Bernstein’s birth — a milestone being celebrated with hundreds of concerts worldwide.

The Chichester Psalms employs the Hebrew versions of several partial and entire psalms, and overall it offers the kind of embracing tonality and rhythmic vitality for which Bernstein is well known. Delivering a bright, responsive, and ebullient performance, Kalmar, the orchestra, and chorus captured the jazzy verve of the boisterous opening section and the quiet mysticism that followed. Singing with unruffled self-assurance in the latter, Bryce Abend, a boy soprano from Wheaton, Ill., supplied the haunting, quiet innocence called for in Bernstein’s setting of the first stanzas of Psalm 23, which begins, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

The concert started with Brahms’ Gesang der Parzen (Song of the Fates), an 1882 choral work based on Geothe’s Iphigenia in Tauris, which itself reworks an ancient Greek tragedy that contrasts the strength of the gods with the weakness of humankind. Although ably realized by the orchestra and chorus, this restrained, imposing work seemed an odd choice as a program opener.

Sandwiched between Brahms and Bernstein was the festival premiere of Messiaen’s O Sacrum Convivium (O Sacred Feast) (1937), an antiphon for unaccompanied chorus that runs about six minutes. Christopher Bell, who is in his 17th season as chorus director, took the podium for this meditative work, leading his singers in a stirring, exquisitely blended take that was ever so slightly marred at one point by a wobbly high note among the women. The antiphon was a risky choice for an open-air, amplified concert because of its delicacy and intimacy, but the chorus largely pulled it off.

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.