Review: Stewart Goodyear and Valentina Peleggi Team Up Wonderfully at Grant Park

While driving in central Wisconsin one winter night several years ago, I tuned in to Symphony Hall, the classical radio station on Sirrius/XM. I was greeted by an incredible performance of Beethoven’s Appassionata piano sonata. Upon reaching my destination, I stayed in the car to hear the dramatic end and to discover that the performer was Canadian composer and pianist Stewart Goodyear. I later purchased his excellent recordings of all 32 Beethoven sonatas, which he has performed live in a single day—an act requiring incredible endurance.

I went to Millennium Park with great anticipation to hear him perform with the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra on Thursday evening. On the program was the delightful Piano Concerto no. 2 in g-minor by Camille Saint-Saëns, a massively difficult work that allowed Goodyear to show off every possible piano playing strength. 

Valentian Peleggi and the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra. Photo by Chuck Osgood.

Conductor Valentina Peleggi, with baton in her right hand, pulled everything out of the performance. Her loose, black robe created an engrossing image. As she moved her arms and swayed to the music, her robe swayed with her.  It created a wonderful visual effect to go with the orchestra’s intense performance.  

This year Grant Park Music Festival is taking extra measures to bring people of color to the stage. Goodyear is black, as is Valerie Coleman, the composer of Umoja, which opened the concert. Originally written as a song for a women’s choir, Umoja has assumed many forms over the years. As the printed program explained, Umoji is the Swahili word for unity, and the piece revolves around a melodic line first introduced by the violin and traded around the orchestra.

However, it opens with a magical aural fabric that seemed perfect for a quiet, end-of-day interlude. Programming something like this at Grant Park is always risky; sirens from emergency vehicles or helicopters overhead can always interrupt the mood. This time, the only external noises were chirping birds, which completely enhanced the effect. The orchestra’s tightness was clear in the rambunctious middle section’s interplay between the percussion and the rest of the orchestra.

Stewart Goodyear. Photo by Anita Zvonar.

Goodyear next entered the stage, and his striking facial features on a bald head gave him a magnetic stage presence. He approached the solo opening of Saint-Saëns concerto with intensity and drive. The orchestra then came in with booming chords, which also ended the slow-paced movement. In between, the piano and orchestra were in perfect sync trading dark, dramatic passages with quieter moments of bucolic warmth and charm.

The second movement is a fun scherzo unlike any other movement in the whole piano concerto repertoire. From the opening strikes on the timpani, it provided Goodyear and the orchestra a place to frolic, and they took full advantage. Peleggi’s conducting style worked very nicely with Goodyear’s smooth playing.

Following intermission, the audience was treated to a gem by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 4 in f-minor, Op. 36. From the fateful opening salvo on the brass, the Grant Park Orchestra shone brightly. Even though most of the symphony is in lighthearted major keys, this opening, which returns at the end of the movement and in the finale, colors everything. Tchaikovsky shows himself to be a wonderful musical craftsman, starting with mournful melodies in the f-minor tonic that harmonically evolve into a lighter palette in the unexpected key of B-major.  

The next two movements give different orchestra sections the chance to stand out. The lower strings open and close the slow-paced second movement. To start the faster third movement scherzo, the strings play rapid pizzicato plucks as the rest of the orchestra rests. In the middle section, the woodwinds chime in, followed by the brass, while the strings rest. The ends with quick interactions between the sections. Everything worked on Thursday night.

Valentina Peleggi and the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra. Photo by Chuck Osgood.

The cymbals crashed to announce the finale, and what a finale it is! It features a whirlwind rush of rapidly descending notes sounding a short theme. Things build from here, but throughout, it is pure energy that Grant Park Symphony Orchestra was able to harness. It was wonderful.

To accommodate NASCAR, the concert was Thursday night, and Friday’s concert was at the South Shore Cultural Center. Security check points to get into the Pritzker Pavilion were quite challenging. Whether this is the new normal or a result of race preparations remains to be seen.

The Grant Park Music Festival returns to its normal schedule next week. On Wednesday, July 5, a program of American classics, including George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, features Michelle Cann on piano. Chorus director Christopher Bell will be conducting at the podium. The following weekend, July 7-8, violinist Tai Murray and soprano Lindsey Reynolds join the Symphony and Chorus in Winton Marsalis’ Violin Concerto, and vocal music by Mozart, Fauré, and Poulenc. Ludovic Morlot will be conducting with Bell resuming his role as chorus director. For more information, click here.

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Louis Harris

A lover of music his whole life, Louis Harris has written extensively from the early days of punk and alternative rock. More recently he has focused on classical music, especially chamber ensembles. He has reviewed concerts, festivals, and recordings and has interviewed composers and performers. He has paid special attention to Chicago’s rich and robust contemporary art music scene. He occasionally writes poetry and has a published novel to his credit, 32 Variations on a Theme by Basil II in the Key of Washington, DC. He now lives on the north side of Chicago, which he considers to be the greatest city in the country, if not the world. Member of the Music Critics Association of North America.