Music

Review: Piano Virtuoso Yang Shines on Grieg as Grant Park Orchestra Rides Off in the Rain

Joyce Yang’s virtuoso performance at the Grant Park Music Festival July 7 brought the audience to its feet after the 1st movement of her piece. Photo: Norman Timonera/Grant Park Music Festival

Many attendees at the Grant Park Music Festival concert on Wednesday (July 7) were there to see the finale, a live performance of the William Tell Overture (aka The Lone Ranger theme song). They left with something the music cognoscenti in the audience already knew: that Joyce Yang is one of the most brilliant concert pianists on today’s classical scene.

Yang was the soloist of the evening’s third piece, Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, op. 16, and dazzled with her emphatic approach to the keys and precision in rapid-fire segments in the far upper register. Listeners at these outdoor concerts tend to observe the unwritten rule about saving all applause until the end of a piece. But the audience erupted in a standing ovation after Grieg’s familiar 1st movement.

The hurrah after the final note drew Yang out for an unaccompanied encore in which she performed Frédéric Chopin’s Andante Spianato Tranquillo and Grande Polonaise Brillante in E-flat Major, Op. 22.

Photo: Bob Benenson

The concert opened with the less-familiar Short Piece for Orchestra written in 1952 by Black American composer Julia Perry, performed for the first time by the Grant Park Orchestra. Its mysterious tone was reminiscent of a suspense movie soundtrack.

The other pieces in the program have long had their places in the classical concert rotation. In Suite No. 1 from L’Arlésienne(1872), Georges Bizet successfully salvaged music he had written for a play that flopped in Paris. Though Grieg was inspired by Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor — which he heard played by Clara Schumann, the composer’s wife — Grieg’s own Piano Concerto in A Minor was influenced by folk music of his native Norway. Like the William Tell Overture, each of these pieces was first performed by the Grant Park Orchestra in the 1930s.

The reason why the William Tell overture was the concert’s headline piece has a lot to do with its familiarity. Few if any pieces better illustrate how classical music can become embedded in popular culture. Gioachino Rossini composed this opera in 1831. It tells the story of 15th century Swiss archer William Tell, who sparked a rebellion against Austrian occupation of Switzerland. It had nothing to do with Texas or cowboys or America. But the creators of “The Lone Ranger” radio show, which ran from 1933 to 1956, determined that the urgency of the Overture’s final section, known as The March of the Swiss Soldiers, would evoke the speeding hooves of Silver, the Lone Ranger’s steed. The music became a pop culture icon as the theme song for both the radio show and “The Lone Ranger” television show that overlapped from 1949 to 1957.

At least for those of us of a certain age, it would have been impossible to listen to the Grant Park Orchestra’s rendition of the William Tell Overture without thinking about “The Lone Ranger,” and the piece is certainly not alone in that. Also Sprach Zarathustra, composed in 1896 by Richard Strauss, is known today as the celestial opening music to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 cinematic opus 2001: A Space Odyssey. Snippets of classical music have seeped into pop culture through other television and movie soundtracks, cartoons and broadcast commercials. One such example is the Bizet piece performed Wednesday: Its Overture (1st movement), known as The March of Kings, has been borrowed frequently, including for a 1960s tire ad stuck in memory with added lyrics that promised a warranty of “five long years and 50,000 miles.”

So the audience was on the edge of its seats Wednesday ready to cheer the final notes of the William Tell Overture when nature added its own flourish. With almost perfect dramatic timing, just as the Lone Ranger and Silver were beginning their final gallop, the skies opened up with a brief but intense rain shower that sent people dashing for cover.

Photo: Bob Benenson

The Grant Park Music Festival returns tonight and tomorrow (Friday and Saturday) with a concert that features Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in F Major, op. 90. It opens with Antonio Vivaldi’s Gloria in D Major, RV 589 — the first choral piece of this festival’s season—followed by Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, op. 11. Both concerts begin at 6:30pm. Reserved seats at the front of the house are $25 each; tickets for Friday can be purchased by clicking here and for Saturday by clicking here. Most seats and the entire Great Lawn are free and first come first served.

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