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Concert review

Jacobsen, pianist serve up a summer highlight at Grant Park Music Festival 

Thu Jul 18, 2024 at 9:53 am

By Tim Sawyier

Eric Jacobsen conducted the Grant Park Orchestra in music of Ravel, Rachmaninoff and Hindemith Wednesday night. Photo: Norman Timonera

Conductor Eric Jacobsen is the third maestro to take a multi-week stand leading the Grant Park Orchestra this summer at Millennium Park in what must be considered interviews to replace outgoing GPO music director Carlos Kalmar. 

The results were auspicious Wednesday night as Jacobsen led the Grant Park players in a program of vibrant 20th-century works, delivering a highlight of this year’s festival.

The evening opened with Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, the French composer’s musical response to the ravages of the Great War. Conducting without a score, Jacobsen projected a clear vision of Ravel’s wistful suite that emphasized its many nuances in harmony and orchestration, a feat on the festival’s limited rehearsal time.

Principal oboe Mitchell Kuhn was a standout in this showcase for his instrument. He was fluent in the acrobatic passages of the Prélude, and eloquent in the extended solo melody in the Menuet. Jacobsen, the artistic director and co-founder of the New York chamber orchestra The Knights as well as music director of the Virginia Symphony and Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, injected a courtly lilt into the Forlane and brought buoyancy to the concluding Rigaudon, giving Kuhn a well-deserved shoutout in his ensuing remarks from the stage.

The young piano phenom Clayton Stephenson was the soloist in Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, another work that, like Ravel’s, takes a past composer as its point of departure. Stephenson has a burgeoning solo career as he also pursues studies in the dual degree program at Harvard and New England Conservatory, and his barnstorming performance of Rachmaninoff’s showpiece Wednesday made clear audiences will be hearing more from him in the years to come.

Clayton Stephenson performed Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini Wednesday night. Photo: Norman Timonera

In a short conversation with Jacobsen, Stephenson said he considers the Rhapsody an American concerto, an interesting point. Rachmaninoff had attended the world premiere of Rhapsody in Blue ten years before composing his own rhapsody, and while the work was composed in Switzerland, it displays a melting pot of styles and influences, and was premiered by the composer with the Philadelphia Orchestra in Maryland.

Stephenson’s performance made a strong argument for this reading, as soloist and conductor alike were fully in sync with Rachmaninoff’s rich palette. One knew Stephenson meant business from the powerful opening chords, but his performance rose far above pure bombast. He maintained a sense of line even in the most virtuosic passages, and shifted among the work’s mercurial moods—playful, somber, demonic—with intelligence and poise.

The young pianist rendered the famous 18th Variation poetically but without schmaltz, patiently building phrases to their climaxes, before bounding through the dynamic final variations. Stephenson was sensitive to balancing the dialogue between his solo lines and the orchestral action throughout, and Jacobsen was an attuned partner leading Rachmaninoff’s intricate accompaniment, and eliciting cinematic sweep when called for.

As an encore, Stephenson offered The Tom and Jerry Show, a bracing romp by Japanese jazz pianist Hiromi Uehara that evokes the famous cartoon’s energetic tomfoolery. While less subtle than Stephenson’s work in the Rachmaninoff, the virtuosic jazz idiom resonated strongly with those aspects of the Russian score, and Stephenson’s breakneck performance brought the audience to its feet.

The evening concluded with Paul Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber, continuing the theme of composers retooling the work of their forebears. Jacobsen, again eschewing a score, led a dramatic, colorful reading of this inventive, somewhat neglected opus.

The martial opening Allegro was at once jazzy and contrapuntally vigorous and the ensuing “Turandot: Scherzo” had the feel of a concerto for orchestra, all sections taking their turn to show off in Hindemith’s syncopated lines. 

Plaintive wind lines shone in the Andantino, and the concluding March went with swashbuckling snap. (The program inaccurately listed an extra final Rigaudon, which ends Le Tombeau but not this work.) Jacobsen was an assured leader here as throughout, highlighting intricacies of Hindemith’s complex writing that elevated this outing to a highlight of the summer series.

The Grant Park Orchestra performs film music of John Williams 6:30 p.m. Friday at the Pritzker Pavilion. grantparkmusicfestival.com

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