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In rainy weather, Grant Park Festival shines when orchestra, chorus, soloists go seafaring

Submitted by on Jun 19, 2017 – 4:08 pm

Baritone David John Pike and soprano Sara Jakubiak took the formidable solo roles in "A Sea Symphony." (Fareine Suarez)

Review: Grant Park Festival Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Carlos Kalmar. Sarah Jakubiak, soprano; David John Pike, baritone.
By Lawrence B. Johnson

As the Grant Park Music Festival heads into its second week, the standard already has been set high for this summer’s series of free classical concerts at Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. Not even rain could veil the special qualities of the first two programs under the baton of music director Carlos Kalmar.

Kalmar’s always imaginative – and often quite bold – programming hit an early peak June 16 and 17 in his choice of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ prodigious “Sea Symphony.” This 70-minute masterpiece for orchestra, chorus, soprano and baritone uses texts from Walt Whitman’s poem “Leaves of Grass” to create an epic duality: a great paean to the sea and a metaphor for the grandeur and the possibilities of human life.

The Grant Park Chorus brought majestic bearing and musical authority to its grand assignment. (Courtesy Grant Park Music Festival)Across its four movements, “A Sea Symphony,” which was the young Vaughan Williams’ first venture into symphonic form, casts the choristers in a central role to which the Grant Park Chorus brought a majestic bearing, textual clarity and musical authority that bespoke thorough preparation under director Christopher Bell.

“A Sea Symphony” indeed places equal demands and chorus and orchestra, a circumstance revealed at once in the opening flourish of “Behold, the sea itself, and on its limitless, heaving breast: the ships.” Instantly displayed, as well, was the concentrated power and eloquence of Kalmar’s festival orchestra. It was a viscerally thrilling fusion of orchestra and chorus that would be sustained through this splendorous symphonic anthem celebrating the “vast similitude (that) interlocks all, all distances of space however wide, all distances of time, all souls, all living bodies though they be ever so different, all nations, all identities that have existed or may exist.”

The young Ralph Vaughan Williams around the time he composed "A Sea Symphony."And in the end, this summons to challenge the sea – to reach within ourselves and plumb our human potential: “Sail forth, steer for the deep waters only… we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.”

Hardly less prominent than the chorus in Vaughan Williams’ setting are the solo soprano and baritone, solitary voices of mankind urging this figurative expedition on. Sara Jakubiak and David John Pike sang with clarion sound and noble aspiration.

As preface to “A Sea Symphony,” Kalmar turned to Britten’s opera “Peter Grimes” and its famous “Four Sea Interludes,” vivid orchestral evocations of dawn, Sunday morning, moonlight and storm. The Festival Orchestra imbued these sketches with finesse and potency in equal measure.

A low crescendo of rainfall accompanied that concert — nothing compared to the downpour that immediately preceded the festival’s opening night, June 14. I was not among those who braved the rain to hear firsthand Vadim Gluzman’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. And yet I did hear it, thanks to the live streaming from WFMT-FM. And I was much taken by it.

Vadim Gluzman: Fierce playing, gorgeous sound in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. (Norman Timonera)I had heard Gluzman in the flesh last December at Orchestra Hall when he played Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi. The streamed Tchaikovsky from Grant Park vividly recalled Gluzman’s fiery and elegant playing at Orchestra Hall. He’s a fierce, assured musician with a gorgeous sound, but also an interpretive gambler who goes for the surprises that keep such a warhorse fresh. This was mesmerizing Tchaikovsky, at once electric and seductive.

Ahead at the Grant Park Music Festival in the coming days:

Kalmar returns June 21 to lead Wagner’s “Faust” Overture, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 and, with soprano Susanna Phillips, Copland’s “Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson.” Concert time is 6:30 p.m.

Pianist Conrad Tao then joins Kalmar and company in the Khachaturian Piano Concerto on a program with David Schiff’s “Infernal,” a jazz riff on Stravinsky’s ballet “The Firebird”– the evening to be capped by “The Firebird” itself. Performances are at 6:30 p.m. June 23 and 7:30 p.m. June 24.

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