Review: Grant Park Orchestra’s Unmistakable Tchaikovsky and Violin Virtuosity

This bass drum got a workout in the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1, performed last weekend by the Grant Park Orchestra. Photo by Bob Benenson.

Suppose you walked into the Grant Park Music Festival concert last weekend at the beginning of the featured composition. You didn’t know what piece was going to be performed and didn’t pick up a program. 

The first movement, with lush melodies and passages reminiscent of falling snow, only provides the slightest hint of the composer’s identity. The same is true of the moodier second movement, and the lively scherzo in the third movement. 

Then comes the fourth and final movement. The themes resonate of Eastern European folk music. The orchestra delivers an uplifting performance. The string section plays with great energy, the brass section and bass drum provide thunder, right up to the climactic conclusion. 

Ah. Tchaikovsky. 

The piece was Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 in G Minor. Published in 1866, when the conductor was just 26 years old, Symphony No. 1 established that bombast was going to be one of his signatures.  

Not that Tchaikovsky was one-note, quite the opposite. Contrast the candy-coated holiday spirit of The Nutcracker, the lush romanticism of Swan Lake, and the angst of his operatic protagonists in The Queen of Spades and Eugene Onegin, with the triumphalism of his 1812 Overture, with a final movement powered by bass drums that, in some outdoor renditions, are replaced by cannon fire.  

His Symphony No. 1 was a mix of moods. He gave it the title of Winter Daydreams and gave names to the initial two movements—”Daydreams of a Winter Journey” for the first movement; “Land of Gloom, Land of Mist” for the second—but not for the final two movements. 

It all almost never happened. As he composed his 1st Symphony, Tchaikovsky was plagued by insomnia, hallucinations, depression (as he would be through his whole life, which ended when he was just 53), and self-doubt after enduring a scathing review of an earlier composition. Tchaikovsky almost had a complete breakdown before complying with a doctor’s order for complete rest. He rebounded, his Symphony No. 1 was well-received after its first performance in 1868 — yet he set it aside for 15 years and revised it before it re-emerged in 1883. 

The Tchaikovsky piece followed the opening composition, Concerto for Violin in D Minor by Jean Sibelius. Completed in 1904, it was the only concerto ever written by Sibelius, and the fact that it provided a bright spotlight for the violin soloist was a reflection of the composer’s own unrequited dreams of becoming a virtuoso on that instrument. 

Virtuoso Augustin Hadelich dazzled in Sibelius’ Concerto for Violin as Carlos Kalmar conducted, then leaned into the encore with a surprise solo blues strut. Photos by Bob Benenson.

That role was played at the Grant Park concert by 37-year-old Augustin Hadelich. Sibelius’ work can be challenging, in part because, as an early 20th century composer, he had one foot in the late Romantic period and the other in the Modernist period. Hadelich’s mastery of the piece was greeted by a prolonged standing ovation from the audience, which he rewarded with a solo encore that was something completely different: Louisiana Blues Strut by Black composer Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson. 

Talk about range. 

The Grant Park Music Festival resumes Wednesday with Camille Saint-Saens’ charming Carnival of the Animals as the featured piece; the orchestra also will perform Jacques Offenbach’s Overture to Orpheus in the Underworld and Edvard Grieg’s Suite from Peer Gynt. Most seats and all of the Great Lawn are free; reserved seats up front can be purchased for $25 each by clicking here. 

This Friday and Saturday, the festival presents its Classic Broadway tribute to show tunes, featuring the orchestra and guest vocalists. Reserved seats for this popular concert range from $25-$70 and are very likely to sell out; click here to purchase tickets and click here for Saturday tickets. 

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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