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July 6, 2004

REVIEW

The Grant Park Chorus, which occasionally sounded underpowered during the opening progam of the Grant Park Music Festival last week, moved front and center on the Harris Theater stage Tuesday night. The Grant Park Orchestra had the night off, and the resulting a cappella choral concert offered the kind of full-bodied, delicately nuanced performance more typical of this distinguished chorus' sound in recent years.

Christopher Bell, who became Grant Park's chorus director in 2002, prepared the singers for the concerts, but Carlos Kalmar, the festival's principal conductor, led the program that was repeated Wednesday. The 90-minute concert of short pieces by Bruckner and Brahms and the rarely performed "Totentanz'' for Speakers and Chorus, a 1934 work by German composer Hugo Distler, was a fine blend of celestial purity and more complex, intricately layered music.

Distler, who killed himself at age 34 in 1942, was a tortured figure, caught up in the maelstrom of Nazi Germany. His "Totentanz (Dance of Death)'' is an arresting work, a series of short choruses divided by blunt spoken conversations between Death and a dozen human beings ranging from an arrogant king and nobleman to an innocent newborn and hard-working farmer. Inspired by a fabled medieval painting of Death and his victims, it included a trio of fine actors in the English-language dialogue Tuesday night: Ernest Perry Jr. was Death and Lisa Dodson and David Darlow were his helpless prey. The always excellent organist David Schrader improvised evocative interludes between the work's dozen sections.

The Harris' lighting was too dark for listeners to read the English translations of the German choral texts, a loss in such unfamiliar music as "Totentanz.'' The English dialogue set each scene, and the chorus' sensitive performance, from the lullaby-like solace of the newborn's chorus to the more tumultuous outbursts surrounding the young woman's death, conveyed the emotional mood. But knowing the words would have enhanced the experience for the audience.

Posted by acapnews at July 6, 2004 10:14 PM

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