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06 Sep 2009

The Dream of Gerontius: Grant Park Music Festival, Chicago

For the eighteenth program of its seventy-fifth anniversary season the Grant Park Music Festival under the direction of its principal conductor Carlos Kalmar gave two performances of Sir Edward Elgar’s monumental oratorio for soloists, chorus, and orchestra, The Dream of Gerontius.

Sir Edward Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius

Alysson McHardy, mezzo soprano, John Mac Master, tenor, Paul Whelan, bass-baritone, Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus, Carlos Kalmar, conductor. Grant Park Music Festival, Chicago


In the performance seen on 1 August 2009 John MacMaster sang the role of Gerontius, the Priest and Angel of the Agony were performed by bass Paul Whelan, and the Angel was sung by mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy. The significant parts representing the Assistants in Part I as well as the Demons, Angelicals, and Souls in Part II were performed by the Grant Park Chorus as led by its director Christopher Bell.

Elgar’s composition, based on a text by Cardinal John Henry Newman, depicts the final hours of the life of Gerontius, his dream and vision of heaven, and finally his death, judgement, and passage into the company of souls in Purgatory. Elgar’s libretto reflects the original poem by Cardinal Newman, a number of verses having been deleted but none of the remaining text showing any substantive changes. The orchestral prelude was played by the Grant Park Orchestra with careful attention to succeeding moods unfolding during its development. After the opening predominance of the lower strings, an alternate melodic structure was introduced with the harp providing lightness or the suggestion of upward movement. In the next wave of moods the brass section was joined by a dramatic increase in percussion, suggesting the momentous end of life but with strains of the previous, lighter melody still evident as a counterbalance. After such a point of synthesis at the close of the prelude Gerontius begins to perform a monologue of his realization that death is near. In this role Mr. MacMaster invested the text with alternating shades of pathos, fervor, and dramatic intensity as he pleaded for divine support at the time of life’s passing. In response to an appeal to his mortal friends, the Assistants modulated their initial choral participation to sound, alternately, more importunate to God or more directly supportive of Gerontius. The Latin prayers [Sanctus fortis; Miserere, Judex meus, etc.] which now served to preface the petitions of Gerontius were sung by MacMaster with a heroic dignity as the orchestra swelled in accompaniment to match the rising intensity of Elgar’s score. When the tenor sings of a “fierce and restless fight” within his soul, Kalmar enhanced the orchestral tempos skillfully in order to underscore the mood of a battle. At this point the choral Assistants further enumerated famous Biblical battles as a means to “Rescue this Thy servant.” As if in response to this encouragement, in the final segment of the first part of the Oratorio, the Priest sung by bass Paul Whelan gave imperatives to the soul of Gerontius in his march toward judgement. As the supportive voice at the time of death Whelan gave memorable, lyrical force to his part, infusing a fine sense of legato into his extended lines shared with the chorus of Assistants. He intoned the “Name of God” with a declarative and steady, high pitch, so that the Soul was now prepared — given this vocally impressive, additional support — to face its maker with renewed courage.

In the second, longer part of the Oratorio the Soul of Gerontius, now departed from life, sings much of his role in dialogue with the Angel. The Soul seems to awaken from sleep and feels “an inexpressive lightness,” a noticeable transition marking his death and passing into the afterlife. MacMaster sings this introductory segment with clear anticipation, as he states that a voice of distinctive melodic character can be heard nearby. The Angel begins now her responses, at once leading and instructive, as the Soul questions its further path to judgement. Allyson McHardy’s assumption of the role of the Angel was nothing short of a vocal revelation. The mezzo-soprano’s range, secure in all registers, is a decided asset in this role, which requires a number of emotional transitions at differing vocal levels. McHardy began her statements with liquid tones in which her accompanying words to the Soul establish a sense of trust or reliance on the ethereal figure. When asked why the impending judgment did not instill a sense of fear, the Angel replies that “thou didst fear” while alive, thus alleviating a sense of present dread. Yet in response to the Soul’s question on the source of the “fierce hubbub,” the Angel reminds of their proximity to the court of judgement. The tumult of voices heard represents the demons who assemble to collect those souls fallen prey by their previous sinfulness. As McHardy elaborated on this habitual behavior, her voice ascended to dramatic high notes of confident intensity characterizing the diabolicals, as they “claim their property.” A similar dramatic communication returned as McHardy assured the Soul of a fleeting view of the Lord at the moment of judgement and, even more, as she accompanied the Soul across the threshold to the Choir of Angelicals. At the very moment when the Angel announces that the judgement will begin, the Angel of the Agony enters to intone a litany of prayers as an intercession. As sung by Whelan with exemplary attention to diction, the pathos of the moment was brought to even greater focus. The final praises and “Alleluia” sung by the Angel, as well as her words of “Farewell” to the Soul of Gerontius were given a special poignancy in McHardy’s closing piano notes. The ultimate “Amen” as a welcome to the Soul by the Angelicals was sounded on a sublime note of peace by the Grant Park Chorus.

Salvatore Calomino

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