Kalmar, Grant Park Orchestra overcome distractions with resounding Bruckner

Thu Aug 01, 2013 at 2:28 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Carlos Kalmar led the Grant Park Orchestra in Bruckner’s Symphony No. 2 Wednesday night at the Pritzker Pavilion. File photo: Norman Timonera

Maybe Bruckner just wasn’t meant to be played outdoors.

The myriad al fresco annoyances, sonic and visual, seemed to be doing their best to sabotage Wednesday night’s performance by Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra—from massive bass thumping to loud voices elsewhere in the park and late-arriving patrons shuffling slowly in front of the stage during the hushed opening bars. Oh, and the guy in the baseball cap on the left center aisle who devoured popcorn from a Tupperware bowl throughout the slow movement—really classy, buddy.

Even with those distractions the Grant Park Orchestra and Kalmar—back to lead the final three weeks of the summer season—managed to overcome the irritations and deliver a stirring account of Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 2.

Bruckner’s Second Symphony was the first of the Austrian composer’s works to show the full flower of his genius in the genre he would make his own (even Riccardo Muti couldn’t make an entirely convincing case for the First Symphony’s ramshackle finale with the CSO in June). As with nearly all of his symphonies to follow, Bruckner revised the Second drastically at the encouragement of well-meaning friends, not always to the music’s advantage. (Kalmar opted for the newish Carrigan edition of the original 1877 version.)

The otherworldly mystery was somewhat lost with the slow-march optics, but Kalmar soon got things on track. The festival’s artistic director and principal conductor clearly has a feel for Bruckner’s idiosyncratic style—his Austrian lineage doesn’t hurt—as he charted the architecture of the opening movement with pliant yet clear-sighted direction. The second theme went with echt-Viennese charm and Kalmar underlined the Alpine flavor of the wind writing delightfully (bassoonist Eric Hall especially characterful).

The Andante is Bruckner’s first truly great slow movement and one of his most indelible inspirations. Kalmar and the orchestra assayed the ebb and flow of the main theme—an echo from his Mass in F minor—with finesse and sensitivity. At times the crucial spiritual element seemed less evident, however, though the Grant Park musicians played beautifully for Kalmar with majestic horn playing and a glowing coda.

The performance built cumulative tension and power with a notably vigorous Scherzo, accents having firm rhythmic cut, and the Grant Park strings lent shimmering grace to the Ländler trio. Launched with a powerful brass statement, Kalmar built the sprawling finale with idiomatic skill, relaxing for the lyric episodes while keeping firm momentum and power. The Grant Park musicians were at their finest here, contributing imposing brass attacks and tensile string playing, Kalmar building inexorably to a blazing coda of resounding force and sonorous heft.

NOTE: John Alden Carpenter’s Adventures in a Perambulator has been dropped from the weekend Grant Park Orchestra program in favor of Tchaikovsky’s Suite from The Nutcracker. The rest of the program (Elgar’s Nursery Suite and Janacek’s The Fiddler’s Child) remains unchanged. Performances are 6:30 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Harris Theater. grantparkmusicfestival.com

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