Pair Of Premieres Put Bold Face On Summer Festival

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Grant Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion gleams amid the Chicago cityscape. (Photos courtesy Grant Park Music Festival)
By Kyle MacMillan

CHICAGO – Under the leadership of artistic director and principal conductor Carlos Kalmar, the Grant Park Music Festival has made a point of offsetting mainstream repertoire with a nice mix of off-beat and contemporary works. The Grant Park Orchestra concert June 14 was a case in point. Along with two well-known works from the 19th century, it presented the first in a pair of concerts with back-to-back world and American premieres by Kareem Roustom and Carl Vine.

Carlos Kalmar is artistic director and principal conductor of the Grant Park Orchestra.

The program was the latest in what was quite a week in Chicago for new music. Down the street, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra presented a set of concerts beginning June 13 that featured the world and regional premieres of concertos by James Stephenson and Ken Benshoof. All together that adds up to debuts of four major works in just 48 hours with accompanying appearances by three of the four composers – no small feat.

The Grant Park program was just the second in the event’s 85th season, which kicked off June 12 and runs through Aug. 17 in the Pritzker Pavilion, a sleek, sprawling amphitheater near Lake Michigan designed by famed architect Frank Gehry. The opening concert took place amid unusually blustery winds that at one point caused the hanging on-stage microphones and speakers to swing erratically enough to prompt some worried murmurs in the audience. But all was well, and the concert ended without incident.

Kalmar grouped the premieres on the second half, an odd decision considering that they were both heavy-duty choral works and together they made for some heavy lifting on the part of the listeners. Alternating them with the two instrumental works and putting a little space between them would have given the concert a better balance overall and made it easier to assess and appreciate each of the new works on its own merits.

Composer Kareem Roustom, with Kalmar, acknowledges applause after the world premiere.

First up was the world premiere of Turn to the World: A Whitman Cantata by Roustom, a Syrian-born composer who moved to the United States when he was 13 and now serves on the faculty of Tufts University in Massachusetts. Roustom has created works that draw on his Middle Eastern heritage, but this 18-minute piece made use of the most American of texts – selections from the last edition of Whitman’s celebrated poetry collection Leaves of Grass. (Walt Whitman is being widely celebrated this year; 2019 is the bicentennial of his birth.) Although this source material – which offers biting commentary on injustice, corruption, and bigotry – was written in the last half of the 19th century, Roustom’s unspoken point seems clear, that what Whitman penned is as potently relevant today as it was then and perhaps even more so.

With strident trumpets, drum rolls, and driving strings, Roustom’s sharp-edged music courses with urgency and grandeur befitting Whitman’s biting text. It builds admirably in intensity until reaching the quieter third movement, with a lone trumpet and other delicate orchestral accents accompanying the four-stanza poem “Roaming in Thought (After reading Hegel).” Then, in a masterstroke, Roustom opens the hopeful, uplifting fourth movement, which looks to a potentially brighter future in the poem “Turn O Libertad,” with the chorus singing the first stanzas a cappella, a sudden, unexpected switch that drives home the force of the words. Overall, it is a powerful, emphatic work that seems just the right length – making its point and not unduly lingering. Roustom has written six previous choral works, and he clearly understands how to write for the voice.

The Grant Park Chorus excelled in new works by Kareem Roustom and Carl Vine.

The program turned immediately to a bigger, more ambitious work, Vine’s Symphony No. 6 (Choral).  The 26-minute piece by one of Australia’s most distinguished composers was a 1996 commission to celebrate the centenary of the founding of the Guildford Grammar School in Perth, which Vine attended as a boy. Although the program made no mention of it, Kalmar said from the stage that this was the work’s American premiere. The symphony offers a kind of creation myth using centuries-old texts written in Semitic Akkadian of Northern Babylonia and a dialect of ancient Greek. “I wanted this work to revel in the power of the human community,” Vine wrote in his accompanying notes. “There should be no soloists, and the text should relate to our basic need for religion without being overtly religious.”

The work offers big moments in which Vine uses the chorus and organ to suggest the sacred and drums, gong, and other percussion to summon notions of the ancient. There are even times when the score takes on a cinematic sweep. Vine was clearly attempting to evoke a kind of ritualistic grandeur, but too often it comes across as grandiose. It is also hard not to question his use of the ancient texts, which must have been extremely challenging for the singers to learn, and they were very difficult for the audience to follow. The program provided English translations, but these were of little help because it was nearly impossible to track the Anglicized versions of the ancient text. The solution might have been surtitles, but those would probably have been difficult to pull off in this outdoor setting.

Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra performed in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion before a large audience.

Arguably, the most effective sections are the smaller, more intimate moments like the quiet, meditative transparency of the third movement, “To the Moon,” with its lovely, penetrating harmonies and the sometimes delicate, mysterious orchestral interludes between the movements. But in the end, there was a sense that Vine was trying to do too much and that the whole felt less than the sum of its parts. The composer was clearly hoping to attain the kind of transcendence found in Beethoven’s choral Ninth Symphony or Mahler’s 1909 song-symphony, Das Lied von der Erde, but the Symphony No. 6 falls short.

That said, the Grant Park Chorus, prepared by director Christopher Bell, delivered first-rate, technically secure takes on both works. These fine singers compellingly conveyed both the expansive and intimate moments, unflappably handling all the challenges the two works threw at them. They were ably supported by Kalmar, who has a flair for handling all the moving parts in these kinds of large-scale choral works, and the ever-ready Grant Park Orchestra, which draws musicians on summer breaks from symphony and opera orchestras across the country.

Following a bright, uplifting version of Jean Sibelius’ Karelia Overture, Op. 10, Kalmar and the orchestra turned on the first half to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93. As the conductor noted in his introduction, this work has always tended – probably unfairly – to be in the shadow of the more popular and more boisterous Symphony No. 7 and it is performed less often. That’s too bad, because this work has plenty to offer. Kalmar and the orchestra nicely captured the sunny, sometimes playful feel of this symphony, delivering punch and pop when needed but being careful not to overwhelm this more modest, even gentle creation.

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.

The Grant Park Orchestra performs in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, designed by Frank Gehry, in downtown Chicago.