An excellent Verdi Requiem at Chicago’s Grant Park Festival

United StatesUnited States  Verdi, Requiem: Grant Park Orchestra, William G. Spaulding (Guest Chorus Director), Amber Wagner (soprano), Michaela Martens (mezzo soprano), Michael Fabiano (tenor), Kyle Ketelsen (bass-baritone), Carlos Kalmar (Artistic Director and Principal Conductor), Pritzker Pavilion, Chicago, 20.8.2011 (JLZ)

Last week’s rare performance of Franz Schmidt’s Book with Seven Seals remains a highlight of the Grant Park Orchestra season, yet it was equally impressive to experience an excellent reading of Verdi’s familiar Requiem this week at the final 2011 concert. Carlos Kalmar brought the chorus, orchestra, and soloists together masterfully in a persuasive interpretation. Extroverted where Verdi requires it and subtle when appropriate, Kalmar conveyed an extensive emotional palette.

The soloists were uniformly excellent, with Amber Wagner’s rich soprano impressive throughout, especially in the concluding “Libera me.” Chicago audiences last heard Ms. Wagner as a memorable Elsa in the Lohengrin production during Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 2010-2011 season, and her performance here was equally fine, with a strong sense of line and diction. The almost whispered passages of “Libera me” were haunting, and the solo passages in the “Recordare” and “Lacrimosa” were as powerful as one can hope to hear. It was a mature and polished reading that set the tone for the entire concert.

In the “Recordare,” Wagner’s voice blended well with that of mezzo soprano Michaela Martens. Martens was especially good in the “Liber scriptus,” which gave audiences the opportunity to hear her in a solo capacity, supported nicely by the chorus. Similarly strong, Michael Fabian’s supple tenor added to the various ensembles, but was outstanding in the “Hostias” passage of the “Offertorium.” Here Fabian’s line was stylistically adept, offering detailed dynamics, diction, and ornament, and trills impressive for their clarity.

Kyle Ketelsen, another artist familiar to Chicago for his exceptional Escamillo this season at Lyric, was also stunning in the nuances he brought to the Requiem’s crucial bass solos. The “Tuba mirum” was powerful both in musical expression and in sheer vigor, particularly the “Mors stupebit” passage, in which his repetitions of “Mors” lingered in the air. In the “Requiem aeternam” passage of “Lux eternal,” Ketelsen’s well-shaped lines defined his well-thought conception.

With their distinctive voices, all four soloists worked together like a seasoned opera cast. The Grant Park Chorus was excellent in the powerful “Dies irae,” as well as in the more subtle portions such as with the opening “Requiem in aeternam.” Guest choral conductor Gary Spaulding prepared the singers beautifully for Kalmar, who brought forth a range of emotions from them in an intense and vibrant performance. The famous “Dies irae” was powerful in its sound amplitude as well as in its clarity of diction, yet the mood shifted dramatically in the engaging “Sanctus.”

Likewise, the orchestra was effective in supporting the voices without losing its own identity. A rich cello sound was evident from the start, and the woodwinds revealed a well-considered delicacy, such as in the tenor’s “Hostias” passage and later in the “Lux eterna.” The brass were sufficiently prominent in the familiar “Tuba mirum,” with a burnished sound well-suited to the text.  All in all, Kalmar and the ensemble brought distinction, balance and unity – not to mention focus – and made the evening a fitting cap to a successful season distinguished by much fine music. This augurs well for 2011-2012, which will include commissioned works among the usually fine offerings.

James L. Zychowicz