Carter’s bravura playing delivers the joy of sax at Grant Park

Thu Aug 08, 2013 at 12:23 pm

By Gerald Fisher

James Carter performs Roberto Sierra’s Concerto for Saxophones Wednesday night with Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra. Photo: Norman Timonera

A perfect summer evening was the backdrop Wednesday night for a Grant Park Orchestra program of little-known but impeccably performed Latin music at the Pritzker Pavilion.

With the sympathetic direction of Carlos Kalmar setting the pace, the orchestra played its heart out in a mixture of traditional and popular styles. James Carter’s bravura turn in Roberto Sierra’s Concerto for Saxophones and Orchestra was by far the highlight of the concert but the other works were so well played that the whole evening was a sheer delight.

The concert got off to a brisk start with Milongon Festivo, an orchestration of Uruguayan tango music written sometime in the 1970s by Astor Piazzolla for three bandoneons, piano, electric guitar and small orchestra. The work was rediscovered in 1990 and transformed by arranger Gabriel Castagna into a frenetic orchestral showpiece, though is an open question how much of this is the Argentinean tango master’s music at all. Still, the piece is cheerful and sounds authentic, and the energetic performance by Kalmar and the orchestra made it an ideal opener.

A sophisticated and flavorful short work by Alberto Ginastera, his Pampeana No. 3 followed. Subtitled “Pastoral Symphony,” this 1954 work is a richly evocative tone poem that depicts the Argentine pampas in a style that falls into the composer’s “subjective nationalistic” phase with driving native rhythms giving way to romantic contemplation (the piece ends quietly and rather anticlimactically).The performance was sensitive and the excellent acoustic of the Pritzker Pavilion revealed the work’s details as well as its dynamic breadth.

A 20-minute intermission was inserted at this point after not much more than 20 minutes of music. Perhaps it was to set the stage for the Sierra work, but it seemed strangely placed.

Sierra’s 2002 Concerto for Saxophones clearly has staying power, which was due in large part to the advocacy of James Carter. Cast in four movements, the concerto opens briskly with Carter playing aggressively on tenor saxophone, playfully covering the field with breezy runs and the orchestra adding percussive touches. The second movement features the soprano sax which voices a tender theme and its own spectrum of sounds. A darker more aggressive tone is set in the third movement which features both instruments.

It is hard imagining anyone else accomplishing what Carter did Wednesday night. His command of both instruments and his ebullient personality make the most of the piece’s pungent jazz riffs, runs and snarls. The more sentimental and tender parts of the four-movement work sailed easily by as he switched instruments sometimes in mid-phrase giving higher highs and deeper lows to the solo parts, which were backed by Kalmar’s carefully balanced accompaniment.

The Millennium Park audience was clearly enchanted by the humor and virtuosity of Carter’s playing, giving spontaneous applause to the jazzy semi-improvisations, which serve as cadenzas in this fully realized classical concerto. Sierra, who was present for the performance, seals the deal with a finale that jumps and jives to the beat of boogie-woogie, giving a rock and roll flourish to the big brash conclusion, which cued an inevitable and well-deserved standing ovation.

The final work of the evening was taken from Heitor Villa-Lobos’ set of Bachianas Brasileiras, here No. 7. This broad orchestral showpiece written in 1942 combines elegant formality with colorful Brazilian sparkle and dance-like sections, all of which were played by the orchestra with vitality and attention to detail.

The four movements flowed by lushly, with the pairing of Bachian forms (Prelude, Gigue, and Toccata) and traditional Brazilian dances coming to a head with an ambitious and long-building Fuga that concluded the evening in sonic grandeur.

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