Teaching Russian warhorses new tricks at Grant Park’s 75th season opener

Thu Jun 11, 2009 at 2:09 pm

By Dennis Polkow

Carlos Kaamar led the Grant Park Orchestra in their opening concert Wednesday night.

The Grant Park Music Festival opened its 75th anniversary season on a cold, windy night with most concertgoers forgoing the usual summer attire for coats and hats.  The threat of rain that never emerged may have kept the opening night crowd down to a fraction of its usual size—particularly for the inaugural concert of such a significant anniversary—but the enthusiastic audience that turned out didn’t allow its spirits to be dampened by the weather.   

 After the obligatory rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner, heard in its festive Toscanini arrangement, Carlos Kalmar emerged with British pianist Stephen Hough and both got right down to business.

 Hough, 47, has been coming to Chicago since the early 1980s and even as a young pianist, was always a cerebral rather than a bravura performer.  Thus, the opportunity to hear what he would do with the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto—an overdone warhorse that young pianists exploit to show off youthful energy and virtuosity, but which Hough has deliberately avoided over the years—was tantalizing. 

 It was clear from the stately orchestral opening that every aspect of the piece was being rethought.  Rather than treat the work as a virtuoso showpiece for piano with the orchestra merely along for the ride, Hough and his willing collaborator Kalmar set out to show us an entirely new side of the piece—one that related it more to Mozart and the roots of the piano concerto, with true contrasting banter between playful protagonists rather than the 19th century bombast tradition. 

 So close was the interplay between piano and orchestra that Hough was often looking over at the orchestra as if to actually encourage them to play louder than he was, when it seemed appropriate.  Every bit of piano technique that this piece requires was there, but always at the service of the music, and with tempo fluctuations and rubato made to order.  When the inevitable applause that routinely follows the end of the first movement emerged, it was nice to see Hough acknowledge it with a slight stand, a nod of appreciation and a smile.

A poetic but never maudlin middle movement, almost a casualty to street noise and sirens, was followed by an adventurous third movement where Hough’s cadenza had him go for broke and his follow-up drive to keep things moving had him slightly ahead of the orchestra in the piece’s finale.  

 Kalmar is himself celebrating an important anniversary this season, marking a decade as principal conductor of the Grant Park Orchestra. With no break, Kalmar and the orchestra crowned the evening with a rousing rendition of the Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition, a tour de force for orchestra which gave many section principals a chance to shine, especially trumpeter David Gordon.  Apart from some flabby strings in Gnomus and tuba flubs in Bydlo, the orchestra rose to the occasion admirably.   

The Grant Park Music Festival continues at 5:30 p.m. Friday with music of Kernis, Bernstein and Shostakovich at Pritzker Pavilion, and at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, with repeats of  Kernis, Bernstein and Mussorgsky/Ravel at the Harris Theater. 312-742-7638; www.grantparkmusicfestival.com.

Posted in Performances

4 Responses to “Teaching Russian warhorses new tricks at Grant Park’s 75th season opener”

  1. Posted Jun 11, 2009 at 7:54 pm by 1SG

    I would not describe the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner as an “obligatory rendition”.

  2. Posted Jun 12, 2009 at 12:19 am by Dennis Polkow

    This was meant merely in the sense that it is standard to play the National Anthem to open a new season, which was the case with this concert.

  3. Posted Jun 14, 2009 at 5:26 am by Dan the Music Master

    I would have loved to have heard the Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition. What an amazing study in skilled orchestration!

  4. Posted Jun 15, 2009 at 9:19 am by Jack Sigel

    Thank you for not playing the seemingly also obligatory rendition of God Bless America, that McCarthy era violation of separation of church and state.

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