Review: Grant Park Music Festival Opens a Hit-Filled Season

On the first truly summery evening of the year, the Grant Park Music Festival opened its 90th season in excellent fashion at Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion on Wednesday. With Music Director Carlos Kalmar at the helm, the orchestra's playing was refined, even when the surrounding environment was not particularly conducive. Joining them was German cellist Alban Gerhardt to perform the ultimate concerto chestnut, Antonin Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in b-minor.

Dvořák’s Cello Concerto is not the only chestnut to be performed at this year’s Grant Park Music Festival. The programs do not just feature great composers, but the greatest hits by each of these great composers. This includes Haydn’s London Symphony on Wednesday, June 26; Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony on Wednesday and Friday, July 3 and 5; Beethoven’s Emperor Piano Concerto on Friday/Saturday, July 12-13 (played by Stewart Goodyear), and Fifth Symphony on Wednesday, July 24; Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini on Wednesday, July 17; Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade on Friday/Saturday, July 26-27; and Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony on Wednesday, August 7. These are just the best by the best. There are many other great pieces being programmed, too many to list here.

Carlos Kalmar shepherds a lovely ensemble. Photo by Norman Timonera.

Wednesday’s concert started with Masquerade by Anna Clyne, a former Composer-in-Residence of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The strings’ first sounds were reminiscent of an ascending swarm of bees, buzzing and swirling. A pleasing melody soon emerged from the winds and brass. Like sudden gusts of wind, the swarming sounds returned several times, and a brief interlude of winds and percussion offered some respite. Kalmar held it together very well, and the ending was quite sudden.

After a quick set change to give Gerhardt a platform and chair, Kalmar opened the Dvořák in what might have been a warm intro when the worst case of sirenitis took over. With any performance at Millennium Park, there are always distracting planes going to and from Midway Airport and an occasional police siren. On this occasion, it sounded as if every emergency vehicle and helicopter between Lake Michigan and the Des Plaines River converged downtown. For several minutes, everything was drowned out.

Sirens were still sounding by the time Gerhardt joined the action, but ambience had returned just in time for his warm playing of the secondary theme in the opening movement. He displayed a firm and dignified stage presence with complete control on the fingerboard. While generally playing with a very smooth sound, he added the right amount of texture when appropriate.

Alban Gerhardt has a dignified stage presence. Photo by Norman Timonera.

This piece in a minor key has lots of drama and excitement. However, like much of Dvořák’s great music, it is the tender moments that always work for me. Kalmar massaged these contrasts wonderfully. The second movement was especially moving with Gerhardt pairing off with flute and other woodwinds. Toward the end of the finale, when the first violin and cello sound together, it was pure heaven.

Concluding the concert was a charming Chicago take on Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. This modern British composer borrowed a theme by 17th century composer Henry Purcell to allow each section and instrument of the orchestra to sound off. All that is needed is a script. CBS2 News anchor Irika Sargent read a text that referred to Chicago sports teams, local culinary practices, the CTA, local geography, and other fun Chicagoisms. The audience was reminded several times not to put ketchup on a hot dog. It was quite enjoyable; a fun end to the opening concert of the 90th Grant Park Music Festival.

The Grant Park Music Festival continues this weekend with Kalmar conducting Kristian Tetzlaff performing Edward Elgar’s Violin Concerto. The Grant Park Chorus will join the orchestra and contralto Lauren Decker to perform Gustav Holst’s The Cloud Messenger, Friday, June 14, 6:30pm, and Saturday, June 15, 7:30pm.

Kalmar is also conducting next Wednesday’s Songs of Freedom. The program includes Chicago composer Margaret Bonds’ The Montgomery Variations and Jessie Montgomery’s Five Freedom Songs performed by soprano Karen Slack. (Montgomery just completed her three-year tenure as the CSO’s Composer-in-Residence.) These modern works are book-ended by two more Beethoven chestnuts: Overture to Fidelio and Lenore Overture No. 3. Wednesday, July 19, 6:30pm. 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.