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Concert review

Guerrero displays can-do versatility with Grant Park Orchestra

Sat Jul 13, 2024 at 2:15 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Giancarlo Guerrero conducted the Grant Park Orchestra in music of Beethoven, Duruflé and James Stephenson Friday night. Photo: Norman Timonera

If the current Grant Park Orchestra season is an audition for conductors to succeed outgoing principal conductor and artistic director Carlos Kalmar, Friday night’s program, led by Giancarlo Guerrero, presented an ingeniously crafted application letter.

The concert in the Pritzker Pavilion included a world premiere, a familiar piano concerto with a last-minute-substitute soloist and a rarely performed, extended work for chorus and orchestra. With that wide-ranging repertoire, Guerrero, music director of the Nashville Symphony, signaled that he can handle the major facets of orchestral podium work. And he handled every one of them beautifully.

The evening opened with James Stephenson’s zesty paean to his native Chicago, You have reached the city limits. A commission from the Grant Park Music Festival, the ten-minute piece is a high-spirited musical road trip with stops at the city’s landmark blues and jazz outposts. With assertive strokes, concertmaster Jeremy Black’s violin invited the rest of the orchestra along for the ride, set against the lazily reluctant phrases of principal trumpet David Gordon. Low strings plucked out perky rhythms while the bright-toned violins swirled around Black’s jaunty solo lines. Pianist Patrick Godon tossed out snatches of merry, jangling ragtime, but the orchestra soon turned sultry, taking its own sweet time as it explored the darker hues of Chicago’s downhome blues.

City limits is a non-flashy symphonic showpiece, and Guerrero allowed each section of the orchestra to blossom fully while in the spotlight. But he melded the changes of mood and texture into a seamless, engaging whole. The players were obviously listening closely to one another, making the piece sound spontaneous and fresh.

That sense of attentive listening carried over into Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Emperor”). When the scheduled soloist, Stewart Goodyear, canceled due to a family emergency, the festival invited Terrence Wilson, a frequent soloist with Guerrero, to fill in. The result was a singularly elegant, noble performance. 

Terrence Wilson was the soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 Friday night. Photo: Norman Timonera

Wilson has a thriving international career, and his prowess was immediately evident in the extended piano introduction that opens the concerto. Beethoven’s torrent of runs up and down the keyboard glittered with energy and excitement. But there was no hint of a show-off soloist determined to strut his stuff, no pushing or pulling of rhythms, no exaggerated effects. Eloquent yet controlled, Wilson’s performance put Beethoven, rather than a flashy soloist, in the spotlight.

Guerrero’s conducting echoed that sophistical restraint throughout the concerto. Orchestra and soloist become a seamless unit, deftly navigating Beethoven’s shifting moods. In the opening movement, delicate piano traceries emerged serenely from a rousing orchestral march. The Adagio’s main theme is one of Beethoven’s most celestial melodies, and under Guerrero’s sensitive conducting, it became gravely haunting.

The concert closed with a Requiem, written in 1947 by French composer Maurice Duruflé. Like his compatriot Gabriel Fauré 60 years earlier, Duruflé had no interest in a fire-and-brimstone setting of the Catholic Church’s Latin-language Mass for the Dead. Those mourning lost loved ones need comfort, he reasoned, not terrifying evocations of Judgement Day. Duruflé’s Requiem entirely omits the Dies Irae, the section that Verdi made so vividly wrathful in his own, oft-performed Requiem.

Under Guerrero’s direction, Duruflé’s Requiem was an engrossing synthesis of ancient and contemporary. The Grant Park Chorus is a superb ensemble, and they unfurled its prayers like streams of golden light. The composer used Gregorian chant melodies in several sections, and the chorus sang their slow, simple melodies with angelic serenity. 

The orchestral writing was often restless, but never gratuitously dissonant. Full of depth and color, it ebbed and flowed like a vast but unthreatening sea. In the Libera me section, praising God and praying for salvation, chorus and orchestra rose to impassioned, thundering outbursts, blazing brass and full-throated song soaring to the very heavens.

The festival has done away with printed programs this season, and they were a grievous loss Friday night. We shouldn’t have to pull out our cell phones to access a QR code if we want to know what the chorus is singing. Nor to check the backgrounds of a substitute soloist or a conductor who might become Grant Park Orchestra’s next principal conductor.

Grant Park’s sizable, attentive audience deserves something more than a pamphlet with a playlist and rows of donors’ and board members’ names. The music—and the musicians—matter.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday. gpmf.org

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