Grant Park Orchestra shows its mettle on a hot and muggy night

Thu Jul 21, 2011 at 12:47 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Kwamé Ryan conducted the Grant Park Orchestra in music of Schumann, Ravel and Liebermann Wednesday night. Photo: Norman U. Timonera

It’s a rare sight to experience a classical concert with symphony players wearing shorts, even in the summer.

The usual Grant Park Orchestra dress code was rescinded Wednesday night in light of the week’s intense heat wave and humidity. The thermometer — or iPhone — read 98 degrees at curtain time.

Under the circumstances, just getting through the evening would have been commendable but the Grant Park players showed impressive discipline, delivering polished performances under conductor Kwamé Ryan. (The program was reversed and an intermission added due to musician union rules that require a break when there’s a heat advisory.)

Born in Toronto of Trinidadian lineage and educated in Europe, Ryan made an admirable debut, leading off the evening with a solid account of Schumann’s Symphony No. 2. The strings were particularly nimble in the fast-running passages of the Scherzo, the bane of auditioning violinists everywhere.

Ultimately, the Schumann was more laudable for the musicians’ playing under challenging conditions than any interpretive distinction on the part of the conductor. Textures were rather bland with little wind detailing, the performance often sounding like Ryan was leading by the first-violin line. The Grant Park strings displayed gleaming tone in the slow movement though Ryan’s self-conscious moulding made for a rather leaden effect. The finale was vigorous yet showed little of the unbridled excitement this dynamic music should spark. Admittedly, under the wilting humidity, these were hardly the most propitious circumstances for any podium debut.

The conductor proved more impressive with the music played after intermission — that or these works received more rehearsal time.

Ryan showed a nice idiomatic touch in Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin, drawing out the ars antiche grace and gentle charm, aided by some stylish wind playing, notably Alison Chung’s lovely evocative oboe solos.

Rolf Liebermann’s popularity has taken a rather precipitous dip since his 1950s heyday. That’s unfortunate since the best of his music deserves revival. Though not originally intended as such, the Swiss composer’s Furioso made a terrific closer. With its lightning string passages, pounding timpani and driving piano–contrasted with a brief pastoral middle section—Furioso is a wild cinematic ride, and Ryan and the musicians delivered an electrifying performance, the dazzling bravura violin playing all the more impressive under the hothouse conditions. Will we ever see the famous (or infamous) Fritz Reiner/Chicago Symphony Orchestra performance of Liebermann’s Concerto for Jazz Band released on CD?

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