Paris ballet conductor brings Gallic flair to Grant Park program

Sun Jun 24, 2012 at 1:50 pm

By Kyle MacMillan

Koen Kessels led the Grant Park Orchestra in a program of orchestral showpieces Saturday night.

While the Grant Park Music Festival has a well-deserved reputation for offbeat programming, that doesn’t keep the popular summer series from still presenting some of classical music’s biggest hits.

Two such favorites, George Gershwin’s An American in Paris and Maurice Ravel’s Bolero, bracketed a nearly 2½-hour program, which proved a little too long Saturday evening in Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion.

The concert was a lively musical homage to France in anticipation of upcoming performances by the Paris Opera Ballet in the Harris Theater. Tying the events even more closely together was the presence of conductor Koen Kessels, who is on tour with the celebrated dance company.

Though largely unknown in the United States, he proved to be a vital presence on the podium, imbuing each selection with a nice sense of line and adroit dynamic control and bringing out the best in the festival’s fine orchestra.

Kessels led a buoyant, suitably spirited version of Gershwin’s celebration of Paris, ably capturing its bluesy accents and paying as much heed to its slower, softer sections as its louder, attention-grabbing moments.

Ending the evening with an exclamation point was Bolero. In his discreetly shaped interpretation, Kessels wisely stepped back and patiently let the innate, iterative power of this entrancing work speak for itself.

Sandwiched between these two classics on each side of the intermission were two less frequently heard suites by Georges Bizet and Edouard Lalo. But it was easy to wonder if the program’s parallelism didn’t go a bit too far here, with these pieces seeming too close in structure, length and feel.

That said, Kessels and the orchestra gamely offered animated interpretations of both, starting with Bizet’s L’Arlésienne, Suites Nos. 1 and 2—excerpts from the incidental music the composer wrote for a failed production of a play by Alphonse Daudet.

The stronger of the French performances came with Lalo’s “Suite in Blanc” from Namouna, a ballet based on an episode in Casanova’s memoirs. Kessels and the orchestra ably captured the wonderfully varied character of each of the ten movements, from the gentle La Sieste, with its opening harp and tambourine interplay, to the ebullient Fête Foraine. It paid off to have Kessels, a frequent dance conductor, at the helm in these two works, which both have ample dance-inspired moments, especially in Lalo’s ballet, with sections that included the Danse des Esclaves and Mazurka.

The evening’s four pieces provided ample solo opportunities for many key members of the orchestra, but no one got more of a workout than principal flutist Mary Stolper, an expressive player with an appealing, pure tone.  Her frequent moments in the spotlight included an extended solo at the end of the Parades de Foire in the Lalo suite and several prominent points in Bolero.

Also worth noting was the highly unusual presence of saxophones in three of the four works on this program. The family of instruments was invented by Frenchman Adolphe Sax around 1840, and it was soon championed by Ravel and several of his other musical compatriots.

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