Review: Grant Park Festival Offers an Evening of Bliss

Following a stormy day filled with ominous clouds, a surprisingly blissful evening offered the perfect setting for a blissful performance by the Grant Park Orchestra on Wednesday evening. French conductor Ludovic Morlot led a program that spanned three centuries at Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.

The ambiance on this particular evening was unusually quiet, with no distracting sirens on Michigan Avenue or helicopters overhead. Morlot and the orchestra took full advantage with a tight performance with next to nothing amiss. As the evening deepened, there were many moments of total enjoyment.

Clarice Assad. Photo by Norman Timonera.

Opening the concert was the world premiere of Water Nymphs, a newly commissioned work by Chicago-based composer Clarice Assad, who was present to explain the short piece. In writing Water Nymphs, Assad was inspired by her daughters, and it worked extremely well as evening settled on Millennium Park.

Assad’s music offers a nice crossover between tonal and dissonant sounds, and the opening builds to an aurally interesting crescendo that shifts between the two. Shimmering strings and rills on the obbligato piano gave the beginning a watery sound reminiscent of a seascape. The second part is a sunny dance that transitions to growing ominousness. It eventually ends with a lovely fanfare on the brass.

After pausing to grow the already large orchestra, Morlot led an excellent performance of a suite from Der Rosenkavalier, an opera by Richard Strauss from 1910. Starting with a rousing overture, this suite allowed Morlot to demonstrate his skills. Waving a baton in his right hand, his arms stayed fairly close to his midsection, with his hands rarely going above his shoulders. It was as if he was massaging the orchestra, and the interplay between instruments and orchestra sections was careful and smooth. 

Having such a talented group of musicians helped, and the orchestra’s abilities came forth in many ways. The slower section following the overture was especially lovely, with a woodwind choir backed up by strings, soon shifting to a string choir backed up by brass. There were nice solo interactions between the concertmaster, oboe, and flute. The waltz was very cheerful and fun.

Stepping further back another century and shrinking the ensemble, the concert ended with one of Franz Joseph Haydn’s gems, his final symphony, No 104 in D-major, London. Written in 1795 during Haydn’s second visit to the British capitol, after opening with loud chords, this piece captures his perpetual charm in a typically robust and lively way.

The first movement Adagio-Allegro illustrates Haydn’s mastery of what is known as a monothematic style of composing, where he reuses the main theme as the secondary theme in the dominant key of A-major.  He also brings the focus to a six-note rhythmic phrase embedded in the middle of the main theme. Versions of these six notes reappear many times, especially in the development.

Tightness of phrasing is essential to pulling this off, and there was no problem on Wednesday night. Morlot was especially effective in the transitions, such as that between the development and recapitulation in the opening movement. The way he handled the strings breaking out in a foxtrot toward the end of the slow, Andante second movement made the passage rather surprising. The trills in the minuet were crisp, and the drone that backs up the violins to open the finale was pure magic. The only fray in the fabric was in the minuet trio, when the flutes and oboes got lost in the mix. Other than that, it was delightful.

Tonight and tomorrow night the Grant Park Music Festival heads indoors to Harris Theater next door. Ludovic Morlot returns to the podium to conduct the Orchestra and Chorus in Igor Stravinsky’s  Petrushka,  Johannes Brahms’ Song of Destiny, and Zoltán Kodály’s Psalmus Hungaricus. They will be joined by Tenor Martin Bakari. Friday, June 28, at 6:30 pm, Saturday, June 29, 7:30 pm. For more information, click here.

Next week, Morlot remains at the helm when things move back to Jay Pritzker Pavilion. The program includes violinist Anne Akiko Meyers performing Arturo Márquez’ Fandango. Book ending this is Angélica Negrón’s Color Shape Transmission and Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 in b-minor, Pathétique. Wednesday, July 3 and Friday, July 5. 6:30 pm. 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.