“The human voice is the most beautiful instrument of all, but it is the most difficult to play,” said the late Austrian composer Richard Strauss. And the beauty of classical choral ensembles can also be difficult to hear sometimes, especially when their voices have to compete with the instrumental music of a full orchestra.
Chicago’s Grant Park Chorus has faced up to that challenge since its founding in 1962. And for its 60th Anniversary Choral Spectacular — presented Thursday as part of the annual Grant Park Music Festiva —the current Chorus was rewarded by having the Jay Pritzker Pavilion stage almost all to themselves.
Standing on the main stage (not the loft) behind an array of seven tall microphones, performing with spare instrumental accompaniment on some pieces and none on others, the singers’ voices were heard loud and clear in the audience.
And it was beautiful. This was one of the most captivating performances in the Grant Park Music Festival’s 2022 season.
All due credit for the program’s success goes to Christopher Bell, the Northern Ireland native who has directed the Grant Park Chorus for a third of its 60 years
Bell has a spritely personality: He is best known for the over-the-top, red-white-and-blue outfits he. wears at the festival’s annual Independence Day Salute. As he stepped to the podium Thursday evening, he was wearing a red sequined jacket. But it was his dedication to the choral arts and his stewardship of the chorus that shone brightest during the 90-minute program.
A theme of light was the thread that tied together the program’s six pieces. “Contemplation of the heavens—that sense of wonderment shared by human beings across the seas, though the ages, and among countless cultures—has long been the impetus for goosebump-inducing music for the human voice,” said the program notes. Most of the pieces were also all choral interpretations of previously published poems.
Bell eschewed the easy route of picking old familiar gems for the chorus to sing at its diamond anniversary concert. Instead, he chose less familiar, more recent compositions that nonetheless did not stray far from classic choral traditions.
All but one piece debuted between 1997 and 2013. The exception was Samuel Barber’s Sure on this Shining Night, the last piece performed. Bell said he chose this because he thought it was written in 1962, the year that the Grant Park Chorus was launched, but later learned that it was first performed in 1961.
The program opened with Stars, a 2011 piece by Latvian composer Ëriks Ešenvalds that is based on a 1934 poem by Sara Teasdale. Marked by harmony between the women and men in the chorus, the piece was a straightforward reading, though the phrase “Heaven full of stars” is repeated across a series of rising octaves. The only accompaniment was the mysterious sound of bells produced by the chorus members on tuned wine glasses.
The second piece, Dark Night of the Soul (2010) by Norwegian composer Ola Gjello, is based on a poem by St. John of the Cross, a 16th century Spanish priest. This piece had the largest presence of musicians on stage with a piano and four strings, which accented the multiple vocal mood changes in the three-verse composition.
This was followed by composer Abbie Betinis’ 2013 interpretation of 18th century English poet William Blake’s To The Evening Star. Accompanied by soloist Mary Stolper, principal flute of the Grant Park Orchestra, the chorus provided a genteel reading to the pastoral poem’s plea to Venus for protection from predators in the night.
Bell shared an interesting history about the next piece, Lux Aurumque (2010) by Eric Whitacre, who Bell described as the “rock star” of today’s choral composers. Though performed live by the chorus, it was originally created by Whitacre as an early virtual choir project that brought together voices from around the world. The shortest piece of the evening, Lux Aurumque—about angels singing to the newborn Jesus—was originally Light and Gold, written in English by contemporary poet Edward Esch and translated into Latin.
Next was the program’s longest piece, Lux Aeterna (Eternal Light). It was composed by Morten Lauridsen in 1997 but is firmly in the tradition of sacred music of the ages. Written in Latin, the composition was ably presented by the chorus with the appropriate degrees of solemnity and soaring devotion. An organist, playing mostly as a bridge between verses, was the only accompanist.
The program concluded with Barber’s reading of a brief, reflective 1934 poem by James Agee. Performed by the chorus more as a coda than a climax, it was a warm sendoff from an often mesmerizing milestone concert.
The Grant Park Music Festival continues tonight at 7:30pm with the Grant Park Orchestra’s performance of Symphonie fantastique by Hector Berlioz; Piano Concerto for the Left Hand by Maurice Ravel, with a piano solo by Andres Haefliger; and Andromède by 19th century woman composer Augusta Holmès. Tickets for the front seating area are $26-$100 and can be purchased by clicking here. Admission to the rear seating area and Great Lawn is free.