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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.
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
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.