Review: Grant Park Orchestra Shines with Violinist Esther Yoo and Conductor Ken-David Masur

The Grant Park Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Ken-David Masur, gave a great performance in a program of late romantic and contemporary works at Jay Pritzker Pavilion on Wednesday evening. With a baton in his right hand, Masur, who is the son of the late, master conductor Kurt Masur, marshaled the sounds emanating from the Grant Park Orchestra. However, the star of the evening was violinist Esther Yoo, who gave a dramatic performance of an underappreciated gem. She followed it with a tongue-in-cheek encore.

The opening and closing works were inspired by visual arts. First up was Profiles, a vibrant new piece by the African American composer Carlos Simon based on the art of Romare Bearden. In three movements he brings musical sounds to three works by this New York artist, who used painting and collage to depict many city scapes.

The first movement is “The Block,” which, as Simon explained, is based on a six-panel work depicting various buildings on the block at 125th and Lexington Avenue in the Bronx. Using glistening tones and a rapid tempo, Simon captured the rambunctious feel of this urban setting. He slowed things down for “Empress of the Blues,” an homage to Bessie Smith. Using solos from the cello, trombone, and violin, Simon created a steamy atmosphere, reminiscent of a smoke-filled blues club. In “City of Light,” the chimes were prominent. As it ended, the themes shifted between the orchestra sections to create a fascinating soundscape.  

Up next was a work that has always puzzled me. Ever since I first became aware of Alexander Glazunov’s Violin Concerto in a-minor way back in high school, I could not understand how such a beautiful work from the early 20th century could be so rarely performed. As violin concertos go, it is an odd example. The violin plays a much bigger role than usual, with the orchestra being mainly backup. The work is only in two movements; what constitutes a slow movement is embedded in the opening movement. As strange as this construct is, there are few utterances in the entire violin concerto repertoire as passionate and moving as that slow section.

Esther Yoo and Ken-David Masur were fabulous together. From the opening passages, Yoo massaged her violin to produce a perfect mix of tension and energy. She made the slow middle section feel like a love song come to life. Under Masur’s direction, the orchestra backed her in subtle ways. When the orchestra heralded the entrance of the finale, it shone brightly.

As an encore, Yoo played a solo set of variations on a theme that was not obvious at first. When the sounds of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” finally emerged, the audience got quite a chuckle. We were treated to a delightful display of Yoo’s powerful technique.

The final work returned to the visual arts, with Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. This Russian composer from the late 19th century put into music paintings he had seen at a respective exhibit by his recently deceased friend, Viktor Hartmann. Written originally for solo piano, it has been orchestrated by several composers. Wednesday’s performance featured the one by Sergei Gorchakov.

Except for a couple slips in the trombones and other brass, it was a great performance, with Masur keeping it all together. The opening “Introduction-Promenade” returns throughout the work. Each time, Gorchakov scores it for different instrumentation, giving the orchestra several opportunities to illustrate various strengths, which they did.

The work’s 10 movements run a gamut of feelings from great seriousness to fun frivolity, eerie suspense to unrequited joy. Masur’s style created a nice balance for the different feelings to emerge. The last two movements really illustrated this, with the violins playing rapid notes ever so quietly in “Baba-Yaga: The Hut on Hen’s Leg,” followed by intense sunshine coming through the brass in “The Great Gate of Kyiv.”

Tonight and tomorrow night the Grant Park Music Festival shifts to vocal music. Festival Director Karlos Kalmar and Chorus Director Christopher Bell will lead the Orchestra and Chorus through Joel Thompson’s cantata Seven Last Words of the Unarmed, which is based on the final words of Kenneth Chamberlain, Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo, Michael Brown, Oscar Grant III, John Crawford, and Eric Garner. Thompson uses the construct that composers such as Josef Haydn used in Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross to highlight the modern words of Black men killed by police and vigilantes.

This will be followed by Johannes Brahms’ Requiem, with Soprano Maeve Höglund and Baritone Hugh Russell. Jay Pritzker Pavilion, Friday, July 21, 6:30pm, and Saturday, July 22, 7:30pm. For more information, click here.

Did you enjoy this post and our coverage of Chicago’s arts scene and sometimes beyond? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation by PayPal. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!

Louis Harris
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.