at the Petrillo Music Shell

July 8, 11, and 18

You’re not likely to hear the unusual works often offered at Grant Park anywhere else around town, as was evidenced in several recent premieres. What’s more, the sound of the orchestra is tremendously improved, due to some fine new talent in key positions. The amplified sound has also been greatly improved. Thanks to former WFMT engineer Larry Rock, there is more resonance, bottom end, and depth to the sound–even though no new equipment was purchased. (And for those interested in picnicking on the lawn, the grass is green again.)

It’s always a great treat when George Cleve comes to town. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra hasn’t brought back this extraordinary conductor since he made a stellar one- concert debut with the CSO at Ravinia three years ago (proving beyond all doubt that arts administration in Chicago is primarily a matter of politics–Cleve’s capabilities rival those of any of the conductors who stand before the CSO and exceed the majority of them). Well, the CSO’s loss is Grant Park’s gain. And ours, since the CSO probably wouldn’t let Cleve do an all-Mozart program, given that it prefers a lush Romantic approach for this music.

The unusual work on this program was Mozart’s Davidde penitente, a cantata for soloists, chorus, and orchestra that was well-known during his lifetime and into the 19th century but that fell out of favor during the development of the 19th-century oratorio. Mozart came back into fashion, but the work never reemerged. It is basically the Kyrie and Gloria (and two new solo arias) of the uncompleted C Minor Mass (K. 427), which was virtually unknown in the 18th and 19th centuries and was made performable only at the beginning of this century. Since the mass has become widely known, there has been little interest in what is usually dismissed as an inferior reworking.

That’s a pity, for in addition to being a completed work, it features a moving tenor aria and a blockbuster coloratura aria that can stand with any of his best-known operatic arias (though the two can’t be excerpted because of the way each modulates from and into its surrounding sections). So to hear these arias, you have to hear Davidde penitente complete–which is quite interesting because most of the music is familiar, while the text is not. The text is in many ways a paraphrase of the C Minor Mass text, which could never have been performed outside the church during the 18th century (Mozart put together Davidde penitente for a musicians’ benefit concert without fee, which may explain why he wasn’t anxious to compose a wholly new work). But if it weren’t for the C Minor Mass, this would doubtless be one of Mozart’s most popular works. For it offers a fascinating glimpse of Mozart’s creative process and it can be a powerful and beautiful work on its own.

There is no “Et incarnatus est” in Davidde penitente, but the compensation is in the new solo “Fra l’oscuro ombre funeste” (“Amid the dark, funereal shadows”), a fiery coloratura aria that Patrice Michaels Bedi brought off with superb technique and elegant phrasing. Tenor William Watson delivered his “A te, fra tanti affanni” (“From you, amid so many horrors”), the other new aria, to great effect–it was the best voice I’ve heard him in. Mezzo-soprano Emily Lodine was also in superb voice, and Cleve kept the three well balanced in ensemble sections. Both the chorus and the orchestra performed exquisitely, beautifully realizing Cleve’s solid conception of the piece–which was full of subtleties and dynamic contrasts. Cleve is one of the most lyrical and musical Mozart conductors you could ever hope to hear.

The rest of the program included a spirited and charming account of the overture to The Magic Flute and a drawn-out performance of the Piano Concerto no. 27 (K. 595) with Korean soloist Seung-un Ha. Despite Cleve’s best attempts to keep things moving along, Ha took a very slow and careful approach to this music that kept things moving at a dirgelike pace. In addition the piano and orchestra were a good quarter tone apart, and so sounded like modern and period instruments performing together. I don’t know what the problem was; Cleve had them tune between movements, and they were still off. Perhaps the Grant Park Symphony doesn’t know how to tune for conditions.

Conductor Andrew Parrott is not as much of a household name as many of his less-deserving early-music colleagues. Yet he was one of the movement’s earliest and most experimental pioneers, and he remains one of its guiding lights. The Parrott-conducted Grant Park programs are always among the most interesting of the year, not only because they spotlight unusual repertoire, but also because they give us a fresh perspective on more familiar works. This year’s program combined two relatively unknown works, Beethoven’s ballet The Creatures of Prometheus and a work by the little-known Czech Baroque master Georg Benda, Medea.

Medea is a melodrama for actors and orchestra that was adapted by Chicago radio dramatist Yuri Rasovsky (who so cleverly brought Egmont to life during Parrott’s last appearance here). Actress Andrea Marcovicci and actor Kristoffer Tabori took the speaking roles of Medea and Jason and were mostly convincing when they weren’t screaming at the audience. The music is pretty forgettable, but Parrott made sure that the orchestra (scaled down to chamber proportions) had the proper Baroque energy and spirit and that it played up to tempo with clean ensembling and lyrical phrasing. Certainly a worthwhile enterprise.

Parrott made the best case I’ve ever heard for the much-neglected The Creatures of Prometheus. Unlike The Rite of Spring, for instance, which is such a monumental piece of music that dance becomes a distraction, this doesn’t stand well on its own. Still, the music can be very enjoyable. It is early Beethoven (of the period of the First and Second symphonies), and Parrott’s elegant and Classical phrasing perfectly suited it. The playing of the orchestra was as refined as I have ever heard it, with extraordinary attention paid to ensembling and balancing.

Paul Paray is principally remembered as the conductor who put the Detroit Symphony Orchestra on the map of American orchestras. But he was also a composer of considerable originality; one of the main reasons this isn’t better known is that he was very humble about performing his own works. Yet early in his career Paray received first place in the Prix de Rome from a jury that included such older French composers as Saint-Saens, Massenet, and Faure. His younger colleague Pierre Boulez once remarked that to know what was going on in French music in the early 20th century was to look to Paul Paray.

His Mass Commemorating the 500th Anniversary of the Death of Joan of Arc was the only one of his works that he recorded in Detroit, and it remains virtually unknown. Thanks to conductor James Paul, who was profoundly influenced by Paray during his student years, and to a cooperative and innovative Grant Park administration, this unusual score was heard here recently for the first time.

It is easy to fault the work on many counts. It is, as Paul describes it in the program notes, “kaleidoscopic,” in that it never settles on an overall point of view or musical approach. Overall it is an exercise in unabashed, lush Romanticism, even though it is highly chromatic. It has some undeniably beautiful sections, and unlike the work of so many late-Romantic composers, it is not simply a series of sequences strung together but is chock-full of musical ideas. In fact, that is the work’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness–there are too many interesting things going on, and they pass too quickly, never to be fully developed or taken to their natural conclusions. Still, the ideas are brilliant and show a fertile musical imagination at work–Paray is a master of orchestral and choral color. It is quite accessible and rather short as mass settings go (there is no Credo and the rest of the mass takes about 35 minutes), and so could easily be revitalized for liturgical use on grand occasions.

The Grant Park chorus was well prepared by founder and director Thomas Peck. They sounded gorgeous, though their Latin was sometimes peculiar (“ex-chel-sees”?). The solo singing, what little there was of it, was quite good. The soloists included mezzo-soprano Karen Brunssen, baritone William Diana, tenor Joseph Harris (who was often lost in the overall texture), and soprano Deborah Voigt (whose voice was darker than the mezzo’s and whose vibrato was often excessive).

I am grateful to Paul for bringing us this unique work, but it’s not a subtle piece, and it cried out for a less heavy-handed approach. I would have preferred a bit brisker tempo in many sections and a livelier approach. Dynamic contrast was particularly lacking, especially in quieter sections.

Paul’s conducting was lacking during the rest of this all-French program, which included two ballet suites, from Delibes’ Sylvia and the second series of symphonic fragments from Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe. In both pieces Paul was again excessive and heavy-handed; Sylvia in particular sounded stodgy and weighed down, and was further marred by sloppy string ensembling that was reminiscent of the old Grant Park Symphony. Paul seems to have that rare ability to take trite music and make it sound even more frivolous–he never did repetitious phrases any differently.

The Ravel fared better, but here too everything was overdone. Paul didn’t wait for a passing helicopter that obliterated the quiet opening, and the strings were ragged and had gone horribly out of tune. The winds were sour, and even the solo playing had slipped. Most offensive was that every climax was premature and overshot, so once Paul reached a climax there was nothing to do but make the orchestra play louder and harsher.

It was quite a contrast after the Cleve and Parrott concerts, and it demonstrated the difference between solid direction and leadership and hack conducting. The orchestra and its audiences deserve better.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Chicago Park District.