Review: Grant Park Orchestra Continues to Delight With Contemporary Works and a Tchaikovsky Classic

Returning to Jay Pritzker Pavilion from a weekend next door at Harris Theater, on Wednesday evening Ludovic Morlot led the Grant Park Orchestra in a delightful follow-up to last week’s excellent concert. Violinist Anne Akiko Meyers joined them for a program of contemporary works and a classical chestnut. The program will be repeated tonight—Friday, July 5. 

The ambiance this week was a bit more distracting than last week. Traffic noises were more prevalent, and helicopters whirred overhead. However, on one occasion the helicopter actually contributed to the mood. Things were helped by the inclusion of an intermission, which wasn’t part of the other concerts I’ve heard at Grant Park this year.

Opening the concert was Color Shape Transmission by Angélica Negrón. The program notes mention that this piece was commissioned in 2022 by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra to be paired with Finnish composer Jan Sibelius’ Second Symphony. While I didn’t hear much resemblance with Sibelius, I did hear a fascinating piece that took the sound of a single note to unexpected directions. The violins, harp, and vibraphone quietly swooped onto the note. When deeper instruments played neighboring notes, it took on a darker feel. Eventually, the single note expanded into two notes and other melodic sounds came into the mix.

Following a nice ovation and quick set change, Anne Akiko Meyers entered the stage for a riveting performance of Fandango by Mexican composer Arturo Márquez, who wrote the piece at Meyers’ request. Standing strong with a determined demeanor, she owned it completely on Wednesday night.

Anne Akiko Meyers. Photo by Grittani Creative LTD.

With a baton in his right hand, Morlot used his left hand to massage the orchestra’s sound from a compact space in front of him. For the second time in as many weeks, he showcased tightness in orchestra phrasing and a careful juxtaposition of the various aural textures.

Márquez drew on Mexican and Spanish influences. The opening movement Folia Tropical used the Folia harmonic progression that emerged in Renaissance Spain. With dotted rhythms reminiscent of a tango, Meyers sounded the lilting tune while the orchestra provided rhythmic background. She interacted well with everyone, but especially memorable was her interplay with the piccolo. The second movement, Plegaria (Player) (Chaccone) is a Bolero with repeating underlying phrases. It was an absolute delight.

Ludovic Morlot. Photo by Louis Harris.

Following intermission, the program continued Grant Park Festival’s tendency this year of playing several great composers’ greatest hits. Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 6 in b-minor Pathétique is arguably one of them. Few works in the entire classical repertoire capture the melancholy of this symphony. As a gay man in Tsarist Russia Tchaikovsky was experiencing an emotional roller coaster. He died of cholera nine days after this symphony’s premiere, and there has always been speculation that he deliberately drank unpurified water during the cholera epidemic in St. Petersburg. This symphony’s unbelievable sadness makes the thought of it being a suicide note inevitable.

Tchaikovsky’s genius comes through in the variety of moods that he calls upon, starting with a slow and gloomy Adagio introduction on the bassoon and basses. The orchestra’s other sections soon joined, with the violins entering to sound the main theme at a faster Allegro non troppo. An ominous mood prevails, but Tchaikovsky soon weaves in lightness and frolic as winds, brass, and strings trade the melody back and forth. The secondary theme is a romantic tear-jerker that transcends emotion.

The second movement, with its unusual five beats per measure, sounds like a stilted but jovial dance. The third movement is an exuberant cavalry charge of energy and excitement, while the finale is a giant slice of melancholy pie. The symphony ends in the dark way that it started.

Under Morlot’s leadership, every section of the Grant Park Orchestra delivered excellence when called upon. The transition from the opening section to the development, with the clarinet playing a descending melody completed by the basset horn, followed by the jarring start to the development, was pure magic. I got goosebumps during the dramatic climax in the recapitulation where, to the rapid beats of the bass drum, the orchestra wails and moans. At the start of the finale, a helicopter sounded directly overhead, contributing to the somber opening. 

This program is repeated tonight at Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, 6:30 pm. Next Wednesday night, Giancarlo Guerrero takes the helm for a recent piece by Joan Tower and Dmitri Shostakovitch's Symphony No. 5. July 10, 6:30. For more info, click here.

Guerrero continues conducting next weekend, when he’s joined by Beethoven phenom Stewart Goodyear with one of that composer’s greatest hits, Piano Concerto No. 5, Emperor. That program also includes Grant Park Chorus in Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem. Friday, July 12, 6:30pm and Saturday, July 13, 7:30 pm. For more info, 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.