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Jonita Lattimore
30 Jul 2008

Grant Park Music Festival: Sibelius, Szymanowski, Tchaikovsky

For its ninth program of the Summer 2008 season the Grant Park Music Festival offered a balance of vocal, choral, and orchestral works from the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries.

Jean Sibelius: The Captive Queen
Karol Szymanowski: Stabat Mater
Pyotr Il′yich Tchaikovsky: Symphony no. 6

Jonita Lattimore, Soprano; Susan Platts, Mezzo Soprano; Quinn Kelsey, Baritone. Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus; Hannu Lintu, Conductor; Christopher Bell, Chorus Director.

Above: Jonita Lattimore


The concert of both familiar and lesser known works was led by guest conductor Hannu Lintu. In the first half of the program the Grant Park Chorus was showcased in a performance of The Captive Queen, a cantata for mixed chorus and orchestra by Jean Sibelius. Also in this half of the evening the soloists Jonita Lattimore, Susan Platts, and Quinn Kelsey were featured along with the Chorus and Orchestra in a moving performance of Karol Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater. The program continued after intermission with Lintu conducting a sensitive and appropriately energetic reading of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony.

Both vocal works during the first half of the concert were being performed for the first time at the Grant Park Festival; indeed both are works that can be described as worthy of further discovery, here or at other concert venues, for they are featured infrequently in such programs. In Sibelius’s Captive Queen the political or national is wedded to both the dramatic and the lyrical through the media of text and music. Based on verses by the Finnish poet Cajander, the queen of the title symbolizes the Finnish language which had been suppressed under Russian domination. In the first of three parts as set by Sibelius the queen is portrayed as prisoner in a dreary and near lifeless castle. Ironically, only in the “calm of night,” when no daylight is perceived, can the plaintive song of the queen be heard in which she laments the loss of beauty and of freedom. Sibelius scored this part of the ballad, as termed in the Fesitval’s program, for an intricate sequence of full alternating with female chorus. Under Lintu’s direction the orchestra and mixed chorus established a believable mood of sadness punctuated by female voices recalling in somber tomes a happier past, when freedom and hope predominated.

Here the interplay of dramatic and lyric effects by the Grant Park Chorus was especially poignant, just as it set the tone for the narrative of the following two parts. At the same time orchestral solos enhanced the message of a yearning for earlier beauty, strings and flutes standing out especially. The second and third poetic divisions of the work give details of a wandering singer, a “prince of poets,” who heard the queen’s lament as he passed by the castle; the minstrel is inspired to take up his singing again and to create emotion through poetry. In the third part a hero, armed for action, arrives to liberate the queen and to begin a new phase of freedom in the life of the people. As possibilities of hope emerged in these latter two narrative sections, the Grant Park Orchestra gave an appropriately lush accompaniment to the chorus, night giving way to morning and to the future.

The evening’s second work, the Stabat Mater of Szymanowski, was indeed based on the medieval Latin sequence but set by the composer to a Polish adaptation by Josef Jankowski. Szymanowski worked on the setting during 1925-26, the piece having its first public performance in 1929. The soloists in the Grant Park performance stood out for their attention to textual detail and skill at presenting a unified approach in this twentieth-century adaptation of an ageless set of motifs. Each singer fulfilled a demanding vocal part while blending with the others to communicate a synthesis of religious dignity inherent in the text. After the slow, almost eerie, beginning in the strings Jonita Lattimore used her voice to great effect in order to establish the mood of the piece in the first part. Ms. Lattimore’s voice softened tenderly at the words indicating “where her Son was hanging,” while her expressive high notes stood out against a choral background in the text equivalent to the verse “Mother of the only-begotten Son.” In each of the six parts the soloists interacted seamlessly both with the chorus and with each other in depicting the Virgin Mother’s sorrow as well as the reaction of those in empathy with her grief. In the second and fifth parts Quinn Kelsey’s flexible baritone described the emotions of others who could not help but weep together with the Mother at her loss. While making use of a declamatory effect, Mr. Kelsey maintained a firm lyrical control, so that his lines remained both supple and highly dramatic. The mezzo-soprano Susan Platts sang together in alternating parts with Ms. Lattimore in the third and fourth divisions of the Stabat Mater. The rich and burnished tones achieved by Ms. Platts lent an appropriate contrast to the soprano part, and both voices merged effectively when accompanied by the chorus. In much the same way, the sixth and concluding part of the work allowed each soloist to give a final plea, upon individual death, to reach the “glory of heaven.” Ms. Lattimore’s heart-rending piano line was varied in equally moving performance by Ms. Platts and Mr. Kelsey as the piece came to an end.

In contrast to the first half of the program, the Sixth Symphony of Tchaikovsky has been part of this Festival’s repertoire for some seventy odd years. In the performance under Hannu Lintu the transitions between adagio and allegro in the first movement gave a natural and convincing impression. The effect of small melodic units interweaving and alternating with the full orchestra suggested a recurrent sense of melancholy. The middle two movements were led by a light touch where appropriate with sprightly rhythms punctuated by longer and carefully shaped phrases. In approaching the well-known finale of the third movement Lintu paced the orchestra with crisp tempos and growing intensity. The final movement recalled effectively the melancholic mood of the first part, its performance giving a sense of closure to both the Symphony and to the evening’s program.

Salvatore Calomino

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