Review: USA and Russia Peacefully Coexist at Grant Park Music Festival

The Grant Park Music Festival this year is sort of a classical music hall of fame review, with compositions from virtually all the greats: Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Brahms, and Mahler, to name a few.

But it is also clear that Artistic Director (and Conductor) Carlos Kalmar has an abiding appreciation for American and Russian composers. Sometimes they will end up on the same program, even on July 4th, when a grand tour of Americana shared the bill with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.

This occurred again on July 31, when Dmitri Shostakovich’s scintillating Piano Concerto No. 2 was sandwiched between American Edward MacDowell’s Suite No. 2 — better known as the Indian Symphony — and Aaron Copland’s Four Dance Episodes from the Western-themed ballet Rodeo.

The result was one of the most crowd-pleasing performances on the Grant Park Orchestra’s summer schedule. If any of the pieces could be considered as having won the evening, it was the Shostakovich, because of the electrifying piano solo by 25-year-old Conrad Tao, a native of downstate Urbana and son of Princeton-educated immigrants from China.

Edward Tao earned a roaring standing ovation. Photo by Bob Benenson.

The program opened with MacDowell’s suite. Its greatest significance was its respectful adaptation of American Indian music to the symphonic form, completed in 1895, at a time when Native Americans were being subjugated and were widely disparaged in American society.

Kalmar, in his remarks prior to the performance of the piece, noted that a book from which MacDowell borrowed musical themes was originally published in Germany. Its title translated to Music of the North American Wild Humans (or North American Savages).

The piece was well-performed, though the American Indian overtones were subtle, with flutes and drums representing traditional instruments, but with the string section dominating the flow. Not one of the more familiar classical pieces referential to folk music, it would be unlikely to linger long in memory.

Carlos Kalmar explained the origins of Edward MacDowell’s Indian Symphony. Photo by Bob Benenson.

For most in the audience, it likely was blown away by the energy of the Shostakovich piece and the brilliance of Tao’s virtuosity.

Many of the famed Russian composers easily segued from martial bombast to fragile delicacy to near-antic speed. This was the case with Piano Concerto No. 2, with Tao handling the powerful allegro 1st Movement, the lush andante 2nd, and the nearly breathless 3rd with equal aplomb. It was one of those performances that at its end produced a moment of stunned silence, followed by a roaring ovation, from the audience.

The more famous of the homegrown pieces was Copland’s suite from Rodeo. The charming 1942 ballet produced by choreographer Agnes DeMille tells the story of a cowgirl seeking the romantic attentions of a ranch hand on the occasion of a barn dance.

This is the kind of unbuttoned piece that must be a hoot for an orchestra to play, and the Grant Park Orchestra leaned into it. Based in part on traditional Western square dance tunes, its 1st (“Buckaroo Holiday”) and 4th (“Hoe-Down”) movements were big and brassy and gave the percussion section ample opportunity to emulate the clop of horses’ hooves.

Kalmar has an animated conducting style. Photo by Bob Benenson.

Yet strings and winds carried the more reflective middle movements (“Corral Nocturneand “Saturday Night Waltz”), with the former bringing to mind the solitude of a prairie sunset.

That last movement is one of the most familiar pieces in the American canon. On July 6, 1972—five days after Copland himself conducted the Rodeo suite in its Grant Park Music Festival premiere—the rock group Emerson, Lake and Palmer released its electronic cover version of Hoe-Down and popularized it for a new generation. A snippet of “Hoe-Down” became ubiquitous on television for many years as the background music for the Beef Industry Council’s Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner advertising campaign.

Copland’s own American story is both familiar and unique. He was born in Brooklyn to Russian Jewish immigrants in 1900, and—like many Jews at a time when raging anti-Semitism constricted career options—he found opportunity in the arts. Over time, his expression of American folkways in his Fanfare for the Common Man and his ballet collaborations with DeMille— Billy the Kid and Appalachian Spring as well as Rodeo — became his signature.

His acquaintance with leftist politics in the 1930s drew the attention of Red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, who called Copland before his committee and tried unsuccessfully to induce him to “name names.” Yet Copland was never prosecuted or blacklisted. It is not clear whether his evocation of American themes provided him with protection, but it is clear that in 1964, even as the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union raged, Copland was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Copland, who lived to be 93 years old, may have been ahead of his time in his personal life. According to biographer Howard Pollack, Copland was gay. He did not “come out”—few public people did at a time of overriding homophobia in American society—but he did travel openly with men known to be his companions.

The next Grant Park Symphony Orchestra concerts demonstrate that variety is the spice of the Grant Park Music Festival. This Wednesday (August 7), the orchestra goes upbeat by performing with The Mambo Kings, a band known for its Afro-Cuban rhythms (the scheduled opener is George Gershwin’s Cuban Overture) and improvisational jazz. Jay Pritzker Pavilion, 6:30 pm.

Then on Friday and Saturday, the full program is devoted to the 1905 choral piece A Mass of Life by English composer Frederick Delius, who was inspired by the Frederick Nietzsche novel Also Sprach Zarathustra. That book also inspired the eponymous tone poem by German composer Richard Strauss—which is familiar to the masses as the dominant theme music in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 epic film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Jay Pritzker Pavillion, Friday 6:30 pm, Saturday 7:30 pm.

Bob Benenson
Bob Benenson

Bob Benenson is publisher/writer/photographer of Local Food Forum, a new newsletter that covers the broad sweep of the Chicago region’s food community. He is a longtime advocate for a better, healthier, more sustainable food system and is an avid home cook who gets most of his delicious ingredients from local farmers.

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