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Chicago Classical Review » » Bell and the Forces of Grant Park Brought a Neglected Britten Masterpiece to Light

Christopher Bell conducted the Grant Park Orchestra & Chorus in Benjamin Britten’s Spring Symphony Wednesday evening. Photo: Norman Timonera

Carlos Kalmar must have particularly regretted having had to give up directing a third program scheduled for this season of the Grant Park Music Festival. After all, he had long wanted to preside over the long-awaited centerpiece of the evening, the difficult, rarely performed, Benjamin Britten. spring symphony, with the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus.

But the cautiousness of the festival management prompted the mutual decision that the artistic director and principal conductor should withdraw from four concerts at the Jay Pritzker pavilion in Millennium Park, allowing him additional rest after recently testing positive. at Covid.

Given the difficulties posed by Britten’s choral symphony and its accompanying piece in Wednesday evening’s captivating programme, the choral and orchestral music of Arvo Pärt In Principle, almost any replacement conductor would have had to discard the originally planned program in favor of a more standard, easy-to-rehearse fare.

Thankfully, that wasn’t the case on Wednesday, when Grant Park’s multi-talented choirmaster Christopher Bell took to the podium to lead the combined forces of the works of Britten and Pärt. It was by any measure a major event in the 60 year of the Grant Park Choruse anniversary.

There was an indisputable logic behind the decision to replace the scintillating Ulsterman to replace Kalmar. The two choral pieces have long been part of Bell’s repertoire, and Bell, who turns 21st year as choir master of Grant Park, had painstakingly prepared his choir charges for this task since the start of the season. Why send for a replacement when the ideal person for the job is already in the house?

The replacement has made for an exceptionally busy week for Bell, who is also due to preside over the festival’s annual Independence Day salute on Saturday night.

But we have long known that Bell is as tireless as he is masterful in illuminating difficult, large-scale choral works of this type. He did so with remarkable clarity and polish on Wednesday, eliciting robust, finely expressive singing from choirs and vocal soloists, backed by the engaged play of his orchestral forces.

Opposite styles in many respects, the Spring Symphony and In principle share a strong sense of exultation. The Britten draws on rustic imagery vividly observed in mainly English pastoral poems written as far back as the 13e and 20e centuries. The Pärt, with a Latin text taken from the first 14 verses of the Gospel of John, is a spiritual celebration of Christ bringing the word of God and “Light” to true believers. A room rejoices, sometimes with wild abandon; the other contemplates, sometimes quietly, the meaning of the word of God.

A half-cycle, half-oratorio, half-symphony hybrid work, Britten’s 1949 opus rarely appears in Chicago or elsewhere. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus have never touched the score, and Grant Park’s only previous performance was in 2001, when conductor James Paul introduced it to the festival repertoire.

The four-movement design is fascinating in itself. Mixed and children’s choirs, three solo singers and a huge orchestra (heard at full power only in the final section) evoke spring, in all its earthy variety, as the instrument for awakening the earth from the cold of the winter. ‘winter. It is one of Britten’s most original and inspired creations.

Bell knows the score, with its dozen interlocking sections, inside and out, and, more importantly, knows how to communicate his deep feeling for its musical essence to performers. His attention to detail, color and dynamic markings was acute. He brought out the wintry chill of the icy string figures at the start as unerringly as he reveled in the exuberant ode to the merry month of May at the end.

The choral response was engaged and balanced, the towering adult voices at full throat even when singing softly, the children’s voices of ANIMA a delight, especially in the big May Day celebration where they crowned the exultant choral phrases (3/4 time) with the medieval cannon Sumer is icumen, which Britten has delivered by the youth choir in 2/4 time. Too bad the sound balance favored the adult chorus over the children’s, making the canon too distant.

Ellie Dehn. Susan Platts and John Matthew Myers were soloists in Britten’s Spring Symphony with the Grant Park Orchestra. Photo: Noman Timonera.

There was an excellent trio of soloists consisting of soprano Ellie Dehn, mezzo-soprano Susan Platts and tenor John Matthew Myers. Dehn, in a luscious voice, soared softly into “The Boy at the Wheel”, where she was joined by the happy whistling of children. Myers, whose vocal timbre bears an uncanny resemblance to that of Peter Pears, Britten’s lover and longtime muse, delivered his songs with precise diction, beauty of sound and deep feeling for what the words convey. Platts was also sensitive to all musical and expressive nuances, bringing enough dramatic intensity to Auden’s setting (“Out on the lawn I lie in bed”) to put his interpretation in relation to that of Dame Janet Baker in her heyday. .

Bell fashioned a clear, well-organized continuum of austere sounds in the Pärt, declamatory choir and post-minimalist orchestra each contributing to the aura of Eastern Orthodox religious and spiritual affirmation. This performance marked the festival premiere of this moving piece.

The program had been revised to include Jean Sibelius’ greatest success, the first symphonic poem Finland. Bell’s inclusion of what is effectively Finland’s second national anthem was “not chosen by chance” for performance in these alarming times, he told the audience, given the association of the anthem with the affirmation of the nation’s independence in the face of Russian aggression and domination. He pulled dark, majestic chords from the brass chorus in the opening pages, and fervent playing from the strings in the central patriotic anthem.

The program will be repeated at 6:30 p.m. Friday at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park.

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