Having rolled out some pretty heavy artillery to mark the 50th anniversary of the Grant Park Chorus and other musical milestones last summer, what will the 2013 Grant Park Music Festival do for an encore?
Quite a bit, as it turns out.
Almost every program on offer during this 79th season of free, outdoor, municipally sponsored classical music concerts contains something unusual – whether it's a new piece, an interesting symphonic rarity or an up-and-coming conductor or soloist who wouldn't ordinarily be heard in the city.
The 10-week season gets underway Wednesday evening and runs through Aug. 17 at Frank Gehry's state-of-the-art Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. Carlos Kalmar, the festival's artistic director and principal conductor, will take charge of 12 of the 22 programs by the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus. The other half of the festival's dynamic duo, chorus director Christopher Bell, will lead several others, including the annual Independence Eve celebration on July 3.
The choral component of Grant Park 2013 rates a closer look, not least because choral music has long been one of the festival's defining artistic elements.
This season Bell will prepare virtually the entire slate of works for chorus and orchestra, beginning with the Kalmar-led performances this Friday and Saturday nights of Sergei Prokofiev's cantata "Alexander Nevsky," and continuing June 28-29 with one of the summer's most highly anticipated events: Benjamin Britten's monumental "War Requiem," to be given, also under Kalmar's baton, in celebration of the British composer's centenary. Thus will Grant Park get the drop on next season's Britten fest at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Later in the summer at Millennium Park, audiences will have the chance to hear seldom-heard choral works from different centuries: Schubert's Mass in E flat and John Adams' "Harmonium," based on poems by John Donne and Emily Dickinson. The latter work will be prepared by guest choral director Donald Nally. The chorus also will join the orchestra for a Rodgers and Hammerstein program directed by Bell, on July 17.
Once again the chorus will extend the festival's reach into Chicago neighborhoods. Bell and a Grant Park chamber chorus are to present a free program of a cappella choral fare at two Chicago Park District facilities, the South Shore Cultural Center on July 30 and the Columbus Park Refectory on July 1. The idea, part of Grant Park's "Festival Connect" initiative, is to engage listeners of all ages for whom Millennium Park events may be out of reach.
Now in his 12th season as Grant Park's resident master of massed voices, Bell is a practiced hand when it comes to preparing demanding, wide-ranging choral repertory on chronically tight rehearsal. And so are his choral charges.
Marking the start of its sixth decade, the Grant Park Chorus comprises some of the best professional singers in town. The ensemble consists of a core group of 62 paid professionals augmented by up to 50 more voices as needed. Additional singers are drawn from an apprentice choir (which Bell also directs) of DePaul and Roosevelt university voice students; a supplementary pool of vocalists; and volunteers. Because not all of the choristers are required for every choral program, some singers accept engagements with other festivals during the summer season, with Bell's blessing.
Chorus auditions are held every February, although only one-half of the full membership is heard in a given year. Bell looks for musicianly singers with well-trained voices that blend well with the rest of the ensemble and, more importantly, be able to switch musical styles on a dime, he said last week between rehearsals for the Prokofiev and Britten works.
"A majority of the singers I would describe as good readers who can pick up music very quickly and at a high level," he explained. "We had people come in to the first rehearsal of the 'War Requiem' having not set eyes on the score before, and they sang their parts quite well. That's the level of performer we are working with."
Bell's extensive search for low male voices to sing in the chorus – a prerequisite for the summer's Russian works in particular – has resulted in the hiring of "three really good basses" – two for the regular chorus and one for the supplementary choir. "We can certainly be doing with some low vibrations this season," he said.
Although Bell was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, he has long been a resident of Scotland. Following the Grant Park season, the energetic Ulsterman will return to his home base of Edinburgh to prepare several big choral-orchestral pieces with his two Scottish choruses, the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and National Youth Choir of Scotland. By coincidence, he will be doing "Alexander Nevsky" for the Aug. 9 opening of this year's Edinburgh Festival, to be conducted by Valery Gergiev. The Verdi Requiem is to follow.
Bell and Kalmar have developed a highly efficient working relationship over the last decade or so at Grant Park, a smoothly functioning division of labor that gets the job done without wasting precious preparation time.
"I know the kinds of things Carlos tends to look for musically," the chorus master explained. "So we are well past the point where we need to sing through the entire score to each other in the course of long, transatlantic phone conversations.
"One of the interesting things about Carlos is that, while he's always thoroughly prepared, he can change his mind on the hoof. There have been times when he and I decided on a style for a particular piece, but, as we proceeded to work on it, he decided on a different style. There's nothing sinister about that, and in fact I've gotten used to it. He works to find the strengths of a piece and play to those strengths – that's always very interesting to watch."
Bell's contract with the Grant Park Orchestral Association expires this year, and he's now in negotiations to extend it for another term. Given the remarkably fine results he has achieved with the Grant Park Chorus thus far, festival goers have every reason to expect their productive relationship to continue.
Grant Park season highlights
The gifted young American violinist Stefan Jackiw is the soloist for the Grant Park Music Festival opener, playing Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 ("Turkish") on a program under Carlos Kalmar that includes Andrew Norman's "Drip" and the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony; 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Making his Chicago debut with the Grant Parkers will be the celebrated Swedish clarinetist Martin Frost. The venturesome 20th century program is pure Kalmar: Ralph Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 5, Carl Nielsen's Clarinet Concerto and Bohuslav Martinu's "Thunderbolt P47"; June 26.
Conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya will lead a multimedia program of North and South American works (Gabriela Lena Frank, Osvaldo Golijov and others) inspired by the Inca Trail; July 12-13.
Jazz saxophonist James Carter joins Kalmar and the orchestra for another Latin-flavored concert, this one displaying Carter's virtuosity in Roberto Sierra's Concerto for Saxophones (2002), which blends classical and jazz elements; Aug. 7.
Schubert's seldom-performed Mass in E flat shares a Kalmar program with two 20th century works that also will be unfamiliar to Chicago concertgoers : Olivier Messiaen's luminous "Les Offrandes Oubliees" and James MacMillan's powerful "The Confessions of Isobel Gowdie"; Aug. 9-10.
Further information about the 2013 Grant Park Music Festival season is available by calling 312-742-7638, or visiting the website, gpmf.org.
The Chicago-born cellist Paul Olefsky, an emeritus professor of music at the University of Texas at Austin, died June 1 in Austin. He was 87. Olefsky was the youngest principal cellist in the history of the Philadelphia Orchestra, with which he premiered Virgil Thomson's Cello Concerto in 1950 under the direction of Eugene Ormandy. He taught at the University of Texas from 1974 until his retirement. He was known for his robust tone and sterling musicianship.
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