Classical

Review: Dramatic Mood Swings Mark Grant Park Festival’s Weekend Program

Mezzo-soprano Corinne Wallace-Crane performs a solo from Vivaldi’s Gloria. Photos by Bob Benenson.

Music runs the gamut of moods, and the Grant Park Music Festival covered much of that ground just within the first three programs of its 2021 season. The Independence Day Salute (July 2 and 3) was abundant in flag-waving celebratory sentiment, with a side order of 1812 Overture bombast. The second program (July 7) provided the uplift in the form of the “March of Kings” 1st movement of Georges Bizet’s Suite No. 1 from L’Arlésienne, the dynamic piano virtuosity of Joyce Yang on Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, op. 16, and the galloping climax of Giaochino Rossini’s Overture from William Tell.

The third program (July 9-10) encompassed dramatic mood swings all of its own. Performed at Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion and conducted by Artistic Director Carlos Kalmar, the concert opened with baroque master Antonio Vivaldi’s Gloria in D Major, RV 589, a joyous expression of religious faith that also was the season’s first choral piece. Then came a stunning emotional downshift with American composer Samuel Barber’s elegaic Adagio for Strings. The headlined finale was Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90, with its moments of beauty and turmoil and a quiet ending that could represent reflection or serenity.

The Vivaldi piece is in 12 short movements tied to the ext. Performed often at Christmas, its first two sections are built around the Latin phrases Gloria in excelsis Deo (Glory to God in the Highest) and Et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis (And on earth peace, goodwill toward men). The vocals soared appropriately, with three veteran Chicago soloists—soprano Susan Nelson and mezzo-sopranos Sarah Ponder and Corinne Wallace-Crane —at the front of the stage and the Grant Park Chorus in the loft. Strings, with cellos accented in some movements, and trumpets, which frequently flourish in baroque sacred music, carried the instrumentals. Attendees did not need to be religious (as most audiences were in the early 18th century) or speak Latin to get swept up in the glorifying musicality.

Mezzo-soprano Sarah Ponder and soprano Susan Nelson, with Carlos Kalmar conducting.

The mood then shifted dramatically from high spirits to heartbreak. Barber’s Adagio for Strings was originally the second movement of his String Quartet, op. 11, composed in 1936, but with its enveloping solemnity, it became a stand-alone piece and evolved into what Kalmar described to the audience as the national anthem of public mourning. Among such occasions, it was played on radio upon the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and at the funeral of scientist Albert Einstein; performed on radio by the National Symphony Orchestra as a memorial to slain President John F. Kennedy at the request of his wife Jacqueline; and performed during the period of national mourning following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Played with the proper reserve by the Grant Park Orchestra, it was a piece that sticks in your mind long after the last note sounded.

The Brahms symphony brought the program back to the middle. One of the “Three Bs” of German classical composition (Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven are the others), Brahms packed a lot of shifting emotions into his pieces, which some music historians attribute to his personal life. He had relationships with women but never married. Composer Robert Schumann was one of Brahms’ earliest supporters along with his wife, famed pianist Clara Schumann, but Brahms carried an unrequited passion for Clara. Perhaps it was appropriate that Brahms was one of the last great composers of classical music’s Romantic period.

The first two movements, Allegro con brio and Andante, extensively engaged the string, brass and woodwind elements of the orchestra. Lush strings took charge in the Poco allegretto 3rd movement, made up of the symphony’s most familiar themes; it was a warm embrace on a mild and beautiful Friday night. The fourth movement’s Allegro imparts some of the anxiety from the first two movements, before resolving into that quiet ending.

The Grant Park Chorus occupied the loft during the Vivaldi piece, then were replaced by the brass section.

The Grant Park Music Festival returns Wednesday, June 14, with a concert that features another B— Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1—and another liturgical choral composition, Franz Joseph Haydn’s Nicolai Mass. The concert opens with Sound and Fury by contemporary English composer Anna Clyne. Most seats and the entire Great Lawn are free; reserved seats up front can be purchased for $25-50 by clicking here. The Grant Park Orchestra maintains COVID safety protocols including mask wearing and social distancing, not required for the audience.

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