Review: A Night of Heroes at the Grant Park Music Festival

Eroica, meaning heroic in Italian, is the name Ludwig van Beethoven gave to his 3rd Symphony. That famed work was the featured piece at the Grant Park Music Festival this past Friday and Saturday and was performed superbly by the Grant Park Orchestra under the baton of guest conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya.

Yet Beethoven’s reflections on the qualities of heroism were upstaged by a real-life hero. Violin virtuoso Rachel Barton Pine’s brilliant, furious performance on composer Billy Childs’ Violin Concerto No. 2 was worthy of the standing ovation she received at the end of the concert’s first half, even among those who didn’t know her back story. For those who knew the extraordinary tragedy she has overcome, that performance was absolutely awe-inspiring.

Rachel Barton was a true child prodigy. Born in Chicago in 1974, she first performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra when she was 10 and won a number of international competitions while still in her youth. The sky seemed the limit of her performing career until January 16, 1995: While Barton was disembarking from a commuter train, her violin case got caught in the closing door, and Metra lacked systems at the time to keep the train from moving forward.

Sparing the horrifying details, Barton lost part of her left leg and her right leg was mangled. Yet she would not be deterred from making good on her musical gift. Despite multiple surgeries, she resumed her performing career to acclaim.

Performing under her married name of Rachel Barton Pine, she has previously appeared on the Jay Pritzker Pavilion stage, including in 2010 when she was featured as part of a Great Performers of Illinois Festival and in 2016, when she performed the Violin Concerto by Max Bruch. She reprised the Bruch piece unexpectedly during last Wednesday’s performance of the Grant Park Music Festival as she filled in for a soloist who had been diagnosed with COVID-19.

Violin Virtuoso Rachel Barton Pine performing at the Grant Park Music Festival, July 16, 2022. Photo by Bob Benenson

The piece she performed this past weekend was a result of a longtime collaboration between Pine and Childs, a jazz pianist and composer in the realms of jazz, classical and popular music. Violin Concerto No. 2 was co-commissioned by Pine and the Boulder Philharmonic to have its world premiere in 2020 at the Grant Park Music Festival, but that was undone by the COVID-19 outbreak that canceled the Festival’s season.

Childs wound up writing the concerto (which ultimately received its world premiere in Boulder) while isolated from the pandemic and said in an essay published in the Festival’s program that the theme’s of the three movements — Romance/Rejoice, Remorse, and Resilience — reflect “personal triumph over our fears about COVID, American race relations, and environmental issues, which were exacerbated in 2020.”

Composer Billy Childs took to the stage for a bow following the performance of his Violin Concerto No. 2. Photo by Bob Benenson

Those themes also coincide with the arc of Pine’s life and career, and she poured herself into her performance of Childs’ challenging score. Performing without orchestral accompaniment for much of the piece, Pine played passages with astounding speed without losing the purity of her tone. It was, simply, a remarkable performance.

She rode onto and off the stage on a motorized scooter and played seated (as she has done since last year at the advice of her medical team), but these were the only reminders of her past traumas, which went unmentioned in the program. She has fulfilled the musical brilliance expected during her youth, in spite of it all.

Rachel Barton Pine, who overcame devastating injuries in a train accident in 1995, used a scooter to enter and leave the Jay Pritzker Pavilion stage. Photo by Bob Benenson

It is historically unclear whether Beethoven had a single heroic individual in mind when he completed the Eroica Symphony in 1804. He had initially dedicated it to Napoleon because of his admiration of the republican principals instituted by the leader of France, but revoked that dedication when Napoleon declared himself an emperor.

Beethoven’s 3rd is so familiar to music lovers that conductor Harth-Bedoya commended that the audience members do some mental time travel back to when the piece was new and regarded as revolutionary. This piece established Beethoven as the leader in the movement from the Classical period, identified with legends such as Franz Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, to what would become known as the Romantic period.

Music historians noted that the complexity and rigor of the piece baffled many critics and listeners during its early years, but it set patterns that would mark much of the remaining two decades of Beethoven’s work. The most familiar musical passages are in the 1st movement, but unlike many Classical composers, Beethoven did not repeat them in the rest of the piece. The four movements — the lively Allegro con brio in the 1st, the Marcia funebre (funeral march) in the 2nd, a somewhat-decelerated Scherzo in the 3rd, and an Allegro molto finale — all tell different stories about heroism, rather than being tied together by a thematic thread.

Guest conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya. Photo by Bob Benenson

Harth-Bedoya, the recently retired conductor of the Norwegian Radio Orchestra and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, led the performance with a lively but not ostentatious manner. He was notably in sync with the Orchestra, which performed with no obvious flaws, eliciting bravos from an audience that typically tempers its enthusiasm.

The concert began with La Madre de Agua, a short 2016 work by 33-year-old composer Victor Agudelo that Harth-Bedoya had commissioned. This contemporary piece, influenced by the traditional music of his native Colombia, was pleasant but quickly became unmemorable in a program dominated by the brilliance of Pine and Beethoven.

The Grant Park Music Festival returns on Wednesday (June 20) with a program featuring Antonin Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8, Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto (with soloist Afendi Yusuf), and Louise Farrenc’s Overture No. 1; Jonathon Heyward will be the guest conductor. Tickets for the front seating area range from $26-$105 and can be purchased by clicking here. Seats in the back rows are free as is the Great Lawn.

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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.