Kalmar, Grant Park Orchestra provide stellar advocacy in a basically Bardic program

Thu Aug 02, 2018 at 11:26 am

By Hannah Edgar

Carlos Kalmar conducted the Grant Park Orchestra Wednesday night at the Pritzker Pavilion. File photo: Norman Timonera

For those who like their Shakespeare in non-Shakespearean proportions, Wednesday night’s Grant Park Orchestra concert offered plenty to embrace.

Characteristically, artistic director Carlos Kalmar interlaced old favorites with relative novelties in a program of preludes, overtures, and tone poems based on literary themes. Dvořák’s rarely heard Othello Overture and Strauss’s neglected Macbeth stood alongside reliable standbys: the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture.

Though three of the four pieces on the program specifically took inspiration from the Bard’s plays, in his pre-performance comments Kalmar noted that the evening’s actual through-line was strife—personal, political, often romantic. And deadly.

As with all three Shakespeare-inspired works on the program, Dvořák’s Othello isn’t precisely programmatic, preferring broadly emotive brushstrokes to explicit musical synopsis. Othello begins with a slow chorale theme which is gradually led by the strings into a vigorous, almost swashbuckling theme. After some tumult, clear skies seem to be on the horizon, but the dour recapitulation and a flashy coda—representing Othello’s suicide, in which he joins his beloved Desdemona in death—concludes the piece.

Dvořák’s mini-psychodrama is well-crafted and rousing—deserving, at least, of more hearings than it currently receives. Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra performed the work with verve and sensitivity, enlivening this abstract work with a thoroughly dramatic reading.

Dead lovers again took center stage for Wagner. Few things are more unbearable than a bathetic, drawn-out Tristan Prelude but Kalmar’s confident hand avoided that particular pitfall. His interpretation was well-paced and exquisitely shaped, though some of the more intimate dynamic moments fell victim to the al fresco setting.  The Liebestod was similarly stirring, tender, and wrenching.

Strauss’s Macbeth springs from the same compositional period which produced Don Juan and Death and Transfiguration, but never enjoyed the lasting popularity of its peers. It’s easy to see why—the piece is more a fantasia on a motif (apparently representing Macbeth’s all-consuming ambition) than a fully-fleshed tone poem. Despite the composer’s dynamic flair and knotty harmonic writing that paves the way for his later tone poems, Strauss’s Macbeth is mired by its motivic fixation and a sleepy, unimaginative development section.

Despite the work’s weaknesses, one could not imagine a more convincing rendition than that heard from the Grant Park Orchestra. Taut, brooding, and thrilling, Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra wrung out the drama and interest from one of Strauss’s lesser tone poems to produce a surprisingly compelling case.

Tchaikovsky’s crowd-pleasing Romeo and Juliet Overture was saved for last. Transitions between episodes were well-calibrated, and the love theme more delicate than indulgent. The difference between the forte and fortissimo iterations of the Montague–Capulet skirmish scenes were delineated, but the first statement sounded more like shadowboxing than a red-blooded duel.

Principal oboist Nathan Mills and harpist Kayo Ishimaru-Fleisher won praise for their superb solos and navigation of what is invariably a tricky acoustical challenge.

As always, Kalmar deserves credit for assembling a program of the good, the bad, and the overplayed, so that the journey is worthwhile no matter the twists and turns.

Carlos Kalmar conducts the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus 6:30 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Harris Theater. The program contains Haydn’s “Representation of Chaos” from The Creation and Mass in B flat Major (“Theresa”), and Debussy’s Nocturnes. gpmf.org

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