Review: With Guitarist Aniello Desiderio, Grant Park Symphony Orchestra Gives an Inspired Performance

Under the direction of guest conductor David Danzmayr, the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra gave an inspired performance at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion on Wednesday night. While the playing was tight and clean, the aural balance between the sections was not always good, especially toward the end.

The balance was great for guitarist Aniello Desiderio’s performance of Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez for guitar and orchestra. Even with the benefit of amplification, the gentle sounds of an acoustic guitar can easily be overwhelmed by loud strings and winds of an orchestra. Unfortunately, the violins stayed too much in the background in the masterpiece that ended the evening, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A-major, Op. 92.  

Beethoven was the inspiration for contemporary Korean composer Unsuk Chin, who borrowed several themes for their Subito con forza. It is interesting to hear a modern spin on familiar sounds, starting with chords lifted from Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture. Cool, shimmering breezes from the strings and winds soon followed, culminating with an obbligato piano playing passages from the first piano concerto. Even though not at the front of the stage, pianist Miko Kominami made their presence felt from the keyboard.

After a set change, Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez was next. It is one of those classical music marvels that, while infrequently performed live, shows up in so many soundtracks the music is familiar to just about everyone. Desiderio’s talent was immediately evident in the way he handled the guitar solo that starts the Allegro con spirito. It’s a repetitive theme that gradually builds in intensity as more notes are added to the chords. While struggling to keep his score from blowing away in the wind, Danzmayr added the orchestra very subtly to the base Desiderio was creating.

Desiderio played fluidly throughout, sounding like a dream in the slow, Adagio second movement, as he massaged the fret board with his fingers. At the end of a guitar cadenza, the orchestra joined in a very passionate way.

David Danzmayr. Photo by Norman Timonera.

Following another set change and the addition of several musicians, the concert continued immediately with Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7. Without an intermission, it’s a very long program. To shorten things, they skipped the exposition repeats in the opening movement and finale. In the sonata-form music of Haydn and Mozart, these repeats are automatic. Beethoven was far more deliberate. Because of this, his repeat requests should always be honored, but they were not on Wednesday night.   

That said, there were many hallmarks of a great performance of this particular symphony. The opening chords of the introduction were sharp and tight. No one was wayward in their unison stops and starts. Beethoven gave major roles to the woodwinds and brass, which were totally up to the challenge, especially in chorale that introduces the finale’s recapitulation.

Danzmayr’s tempo choices throughout were very good, and the faster-than-usual trio in the Scherzo was inspired. With a wand in his right hand, he moved his arms in a contrary circular fashion as he signaled the various sections to join the soundscape.

The strings were fine in several places. The opening of the second movement Allegretto features the cellos and bases in a dirge that goes through carefully shifting dynamics. One thing I always listen for in the finale is whether the rapid notes on the violins sound clearly, which they did on Wednesday night.

Aside from the missed repeats, the performance was marred only by a lack of force in the violins. In the development of the opening movement and the trio of the fast scherzo, they just didn’t carry enough weight in the aural mix. It was especially noticeable in the finale’s climax at the end, where a little more oomph would have been very beneficial.

The Grant Park Music Festival continues tonight and tomorrow night. However, due to another event taking place in Grant Park this weekend, the venue is moving next door to the Harris Theater. The featured work is Ottorino Respighi’s Pines of Rome, but the program also includes music by Antonín Dvořák, Jessie Mongomery, and Aaron Copeland. Montgomery is the Mead Composer in Residence of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Their L.E.S. Characters from 2021 depicts several scenes from New York’s Lower East Side. Friday, August 4, 6:30 pm, Saturday, August 5, 7:30pm. For more information, click here.

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.