New life for a Russian warhorse and an American rarity at the Grant Park Music Festival

Thu Aug 02, 2012 at 1:39 pm

By Dennis Polkow

Carlos Kalmar led the Grant Park Orchestra Wednesday night at the Pritzker Pavilion.

Even though Lollapalooza was still two days away, the set-up for the popular rock festival — which will force the Grant Park Music Festival indoors to the Harris Theater for the weekend — is already wreaking havoc on the streets surrounding Millennium Park. Most were closed and those that weren’t were clogged, so plan accordingly. Security fences were in place and security personnel told patrons heading into Wednesday’s concert not to “loiter” and to “move along.”
 
Those that managed to make their way to Wednesday’s Grant Park Orchestra concert were treated to performances that, thankfully, proved well worth the trouble.  
 
Born in Park Ridge, composer John Alden Carpenter (1876-1951) took his name from his ancestor John Alden of Mayflower fame. Although professionally-trained as a composer at Harvard and beyond — even studying with Edward Elgar post graduation — like Charles Ives, he was a successful businessman for whom writing music was a passionate avocation.
 
Carpenter had much success as a composer in his day despite being relatively neglected today and his first orchestral work, Adventures in a Perambulator, remains one of his best-known works. Premiered in Chicago in 1915, the Neo-Impressionist romp attempts to depict in musical terms his fanciful adventures as a child, being wheeled around in a carriage by his nanny.
 
Given the work’s age, local history and colorful character, it was surprising to learn that Wednesday’s performance was a Grant Park premiere. It is tailor-made summer festival music, exquisitely crafted yet immensely accessible.
 
Carlos Kalmar clearly sought to advocate for this work as a lost masterpiece, such was his careful attention to the smallest details of the score. The Grant Park Orchestra responded with playing of the first order both individually for the work’s many evocative effects and collectively for the dense orchestral passages.
 
Despite being nearly a century old and unabashedly tonal, the work’s vibrant orchestration and incorporation of elements of contemporaries like Debussy and Ravel also prefigures Gershwin in its often jazzy vernacular.      
 
That Adventures in a Perambulator stands up well alongside such a warhorse as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade is a high compliment in itself. The works have a common structure, several tableaux that interconnect thematically and which do not seek to be very literal in their musical narrative.
 
Kalmar took much of the opening movement of Scheherazade quite slowly by the usual standard, but made a compelling case for the choice with the contrasting dynamic and rhythmic build-ups that followed. Again, both the section playing and the orchestral playing as a whole revealed an extraordinary chemistry between Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra that seems to deepen, even after more than a decade of playing together.  
 
It was rare and wonderful to hear a violinist and an orchestra be so on the same page in terms of not overdoing the work’s many colorful effects as is so commonly done nor in over-sentimentalizing this lush score. Concertmaster Jeremy Black played the solo sections with dazzling precision and exquisite intonation even in the highest register. His performance was never over-Romanticized and always full-bodied yet tranquil, allowing these familiar passages to sound remarkably fresh and poetic.
 
Both he and the orchestra were greeted with a well-deserved standing ovation, Kalmar and Black both genuinely and humbly congratulating the other’s extraordinary contribution to a dazzling performance.           
 

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