Just as Conductor Carlos Kalmar had hinted at in his opening remarks, the Grant Park Music Festival June 14 (and 15) performance had the feel of two separate concerts—each deeply satisfying but in different ways. The performance of the evening’s four works was such that one could feel a bit gluttonous at the excess of excellence, in this writer’s view.
The BIG event of the evening was perhaps the world premiere of Kareem Roustom’s TURN TO THE WORLD: A WHITMAN CANTATA. Kalmar gave a fitting introduction to this piece by not so obliquely referencing how it speaks to the ineptness of some somebodies in power to the roars of the mostly anti-Trump crowd. But, for those of us who had the chance to attend the pre-concert lecture, hearing the composer explain the origin of his work was even more poignant. A Syrian-American with relatives still living in Syria, he has sought many ways to find peace with his limited ability to change the situation in his first homeland. One way has been creating Aleppo Songs, a work that not only is rich with the musical culture of Syria, but also generates funds through sales of sheet music and performance royalties. More though, Roustom began to delve in a deeper way to study the American Civil War and through that landed on Whitman’s poetic voice as the one he wanted to capture in his commission from the Grant Park Music Festival. That it is the 200th Anniversary of Whitman’s birth was entirely serendipitous.
We also had learned that Roustom most credits Britten’s Ballad of the Heroes for making it clear to him that he wanted the chorus to sing in unison, so that we did not have to look at our programs. These words were Whitman’s lamentation on the moral universe in disarray and wanting to right it by turning it upside down. Their emotive power came even more from the percussion driven early movements breaking into a floating a cappella movement that followed before the closer.
In what strikes this writer as another sign of Grant Park Music Festival’s programming genius, the work that followed this world premiere, Australian composer Carl Vine’s Symphony No. 6 Choral Symphony, in some ways seemed like a continuing conversation. Here though, there was no hope of following the words as they were in forgotten ancient tongues from Sumeria and Babylonia. This work is a meditation on the need for meditation—not a calm om in a meadow but rather a roiling deep dive into existential woes with driving rhythms from the percussion section, flavors of horror movie scores from the organ, and then a fever break from the Sturm und Drang in a movement that one can best describe as feeling celestial. It was in this buildup and then release of tensions that these two works in the second half of the evening seemed to announce themselves as imagined family relations.
How interesting to think back to the first half of the concert—Sibelius’ Karelia Overture and no less than Beethoven’s 8th Symphony which struck this writer as so excellent that they in themselves could have been the entire evening’s satisfying meal.
How exciting to note that every Grant Park Music Festival concert this season seems to perfect this formula—combining the widely known with the lesser known or as in this case, never heard before. Read and bookmark this picture-rich Grant Park Music Festival 2019 PREVIEW.
Learn more about the Composer Kareem Roustom’s Aleppo Songs fundraiser here.
All photos by Norman Timonera