Magnificent Bruckner by Graf, Grant Park Orchestra warms a chilly night

Thu Jul 09, 2009 at 1:53 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Hans Graf conducted the Grant Park Orchestra in Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4 Wednesday night.

Chicago’s lakefront has much visual splendor to offer but mountains are not among them—at least, the non-steel-and-glass variety. 

Under the direction of Hans Graf, however, Millennium Park was effectively transformed into the Austrian Alps Wednesday, as the conductor led the Grant Park Orchestra in a magnificent performance of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4, bringing a warm glow to a cold and drizzly night.

 Bruckner is not exactly your standard light summer fare, but the Grant Park Music Festival has never been content to rely on the repertoire’s greatest hits, one of its most attractive qualities.

 Once tagged with the title “Romantic”—redundant, since the same adjective can be applied to all of Bruckner’s music—the Fourth is the most concise and user-friendly of the composer’s vast symphonic canvases, yet richly characteristic in its evocation of the mountains Bruckner loved and his spacious spiritual contemplation.

 Music director of the Houston Symphony, Graf clearly brings an idiomatic hand to his compatriot’s music, and the Austrian conductor’s guidance of the Fourth was truly the art that conceals art.  Graf made no concessions to the challenges of al fresco music-making, drawing uncommonly detailed and nuanced playing from the Grant Park musicians in a refined, powerful performance that provided one of the finest events of the summer.

Lesser podium talents are content to whip up the volume in the brass fanfares and rush through the quiet passages in between, but not Graf.  His direction was flowing and organic, Bruckner’s long musical lines unfolding patiently with dramatic tension sustained.  Lyrical passages had the requisite Viennese lilt, as with the second subject of the opening movement and the bucolic wind trio of the scherzo. (A bird flying low over the heads of the audience added a bit of rustic verisimilitude.)

 The performance progressed with a firm sense of momentum and inevitability, brass tuttis stirring yet seamlessly dovetailing into organ-like string tones. The cumulative force of the performance built to a powerful, stentorian coda, trumpets and horns gleaming without a hint of braying or bombast.  The playing of the orchestra was first-class across all sections, with the Grant Park brass at their finest and most magisterial.

 Mozart’s Overture to The Magic Flute made an apt prelude to the symphony. After a tentative opening chord, Graf led a more stately and thoughtful reading than the usual egg-timer race, Mozart’s themes given dramatic weight and a nice sense of foreboding.

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