Talk about lighting your birthday candles.
Each year, Chicagoland’s finest classical singers headline the Grant Park Music Festival for a choir program conducted by Christopher Bell. But this year, as they say, is a great year. Thursday’s performance celebrated the Grant Park Chorus’ 60th anniversary season, featuring the ensemble in a rare concert without orchestra and theme around the motif of light.
Not that this party theme limits Grant Park’s options much. The festival easily filled an hour-long program of mostly contemporary cornerstones, from sacred to secular and everything in between, featuring guest keyboardist Stephen Alltop and musicians from the festival orchestra.
Morten Lauridsen’s ‘Lux aeterna’ (1997) stood out as the only multi-movement work on the program, literally corresponding to the program’s vanity: after the death of his mother, Lauridsen compiled sacred Latin texts mentioning light and chained them into a sort of neo-mass.
Much of the writing listens to the retrograde choral conventions of earlier centuries, and it stays in the same key for most of the piece. That hasn’t stopped ‘Lux aeterna’ from being one of Lauridsen’s most scheduled works – although that should be a whole other debate.
The choir, masked and in its reduced version a cappella configuration of 60 singers, strongly argued in favor of “Lux aeterna”. The tenors sang with remarkable control and warmth in their “Agnus Dei” soli, and the sopranos stood out with their impressive inner section blend. But Bell’s compelling interpretive arc was what set this “Lux aeterna” apart. Attractive as always in a dazzling red blazer, Bell directed the “Introitus” so that it seethes from emotional restraint to unapologetic fervor, bringing out the work’s own progression from medieval modal declamations to harmony. big-boned neo-romantic. Bell also managed to finish the consonants here and throughout the night with a deft hand, some glowing like the still-smoldering end of the candle wick.
Choral superstar Eric Whitacre’s ‘Lux aurumque’ (2000) was right at home in the Grant Park survey – lush, broadly appealing and no doubt familiar to many singers in the audience. “Lux aurumque” inaugurated Whitacre’s new series of virtual choirs in 2010, when the idea of assembling pre-recorded vocals into a remote ensemble seemed to come out of “The Jetsons.” (As little we knew.) Of all the works on the program, the voices of the Grant Park Chorus seemed to settle most easily into Whitacre’s writing, half-steps tingling satisfyingly through the sections.
Abbie Betinis’ engrossing ‘To the Evening Star’ (2013) was also full of delightful dissonance, with festival orchestra flautist Mary Stolper a special star within a star. In Betinis’ seven-minute work, the flute is less an accompaniment than an equal narrative partner with the choir. Stolper’s solos, cadence-like and lapping like a flame, underscored this unequivocal intention.
The evening ended with a sweet farewell to Samuel Barber’s “Sure on This Shining Night,” with the singers rising above the steady pulse of Alltop’s piano. Bell told the audience that he chose Barber’s classic because he believed it was completed the same year as the founding of the Grant Park Chorus. Turns out he had a year off – but Bell joked that he was willing to stretch the timeline if everyone else was.
“Sixty years strong – here’s another 60 more,” he told the crowd.
Indeed – and the future looks brighter than ever.
The Grant Park Chorus rehearses the a cappella program for its “Night Out in the Parks” series, 6:30 p.m. Aug. 8 at the South Shore Cultural Center, 7059 S. South Shore Drive, free; grantparkmusicfestival.com
Hannah Edgar is a freelance writer.
The Rubin Institute for Music Criticism helps fund our coverage of classical music. The Chicago Tribune maintains complete editorial control over assignments and content.