Review: New Conductor, Different Program, No Problem for Grant Park Orchestra 

For the second time in a week, a Chicago orchestra’s conductor was suddenly sidelined due to a positive COVID-19 test just hours before a concert. Last Thursday, this happened to Riccardo Muti, whose appearance with Anne-Sophie Mutter and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was handed over to Lina González-Granados. Serving as the CSO’s Georg Solti Conducting Apprentice, González-Granados filled in marvelously.

The same thing happened last night to the Grant Park Orchestra when Carlos Kalmar, its longtime conductor and artistic director, tested positive for COVID-19 in a test taken after an early afternoon rehearsal. Like the CSO, the Grant Park Music Festival concert went off without a hitch, thanks to the flexibility of the talented musicians, and the availability of experienced conductor Dr. Stephen Alltop, who got to play something unusual—hero—by stepping in for Kalmar at virtually the last minute. 

Alltop is music director of the Alice Millar Chapel at Northwestern University in Evanston, and has been music director for the Apollo Chorus of Chicago, the Green Lake Choral Institute and the Elmhurst Symphony Orchestra. The Grant Park Orchestra performed very well, without obvious flaws, under his baton. 

Conductor Alltop reaches high before the final note of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. Photo by Bob Benenson.

Kalmar’s unexpected absence did require major alterations to the planned program to oft-played pieces on which Alltop and the players could easily sync.  

The featured piece—Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, Unfinished—went on as planned. But The Midnight Hour, a short, dynamic and complex piece written in 2015 by composer Anna Clyne, was pulled in lieu of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Overture to Egmont, written as incidental music to a play by German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.  

The concert concluded with Tchaikovsky’s uplifting Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. Even if you are not a classical aficionado and are unfamiliar with the title, chances are good that you know the music. Its lushy, romantic theme, repeated through much of the overture, has been utilized in the soundtracks of dozens of films, TV, and, even video games. (Here’s a link to a YouTube video of the London Symphony Orchestra performing the piece.) 

Piano duo ZOFO was the featured guest at Wednesday’s Grant Park concert. Photo by Bob Benenson.

Even the evening’s featured guests—ZOFO, the piano duo of Eva-Maria Zimmermann and Keisuke Nakagoshi—joined in the flexibility. ZOFO, which stands for 20 Finger Orchestra (with “z” representing the number “2”), had planned to perform a world premiere of Zofomorphosis, a piece by Australian composer Carl Vine. But that piece was written for the duo to perform with the full Grant Park Orchestra, and Alltop had no prep time at all to conduct a brand-new piece. 

ZOFO instead played another Vine piece, Sonata for Piano Four Hands, with the stage to themselves, seated side-by-side on the piano bench, and they wowed the audience in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion with their virtuosity.  

The Sonata is a 20-minute composition in five movements that are played attacca, without pause. The duo was mesmerizing through a series of major tempo shifts indicated by movement titles such as Waltz, Meditation and Toccata. Nakagoshi performed in the lower register and Zimmermann in the upper, but the score required them to cross hands in parts, which is no mean trick for four hands on a single keyboard. It would be great if the Grant Park Orchestra could bring them back to perform Zofomorphosis, even if it now has to get its world premiere elsewhere. 

ZOFO performers Keisuke Nakagoshi and Eva-Marie Zimmermann. Photo by Bob Benenson.

The rest of the program was an enjoyable ride through three warmly familiar pieces from classical music’s greatest hits, with the audience left only to ponder why Schubert never finished his 8th Symphony after writing two brilliant movements. 

Conductor Kalmar is reportedly feeling well but will miss Friday’s scheduled Grant Park Orchestra concert. This has required another pivot. David Danzmayr, who recently replaced Kalmar when he stepped down as music director of the Oregon Symphony, will take the baton here on Friday.

The orchestra will perform Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 1, with violinist Simone Lamsma as featured soloist. It replaces the planned Symphony No. 11 by Dmitri Shostakovich, a much less-familiar and less-frequently performed composition on which Danzmayr and the orchestra will not have time to rehearse together. 

Tickets in the front section for Friday’s concert are $26 and can be purchased by clicking here. Admission to the back section of the seating area and the Great Lawn is free. The scheduled Saturday performance was canceled previously to avoid conflict with the concurrent Pride in the Park Celebration. 

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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.