Pianist lights up Grant Park opener on a chilly night

Thu Jun 12, 2014 at 2:12 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Natasha Paremski performed Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 2 on opening night of the Grant Park Music Festival Wednesday at the Pritzker Pavilion. Photo: Norman Timonera
Natasha Paremski performed Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2 on opening night of the Grant Park Music Festival Wednesday at the Pritzker Pavilion. Photo: Norman Timonera

Almost on cue, the sun managed to peek out from behind the prevailing grey skies Wednesday night minutes before Carlos Kalmar gave the downbeat to open the Grant Park Music Festival’s 80th anniversary season.

The sun soon slipped back behind the clouds just as quickly. Never mind. After the long bleak winter Chicagoans had to endure, the start of the summer concert season was welcome regardless even with overcast skies and chilly temps.

Carlos Kalmar opened Grant Park’s anniversary year with the kind of quirkily appealing program that makes the city’s free lakefront festival one of Chicago’s most consistently rewarding classical tickets.

While American repertory continues to be mostly ignored by Chicago’s two largest musical institutions, the Grant Park festival continues to set a national standard in making homegrown music a major part of its mission for eight decades.

Kalmar selected music of John Corigliano to kick off the summer season at the Pritzker Pavilion. Written in 1965, the American composer’s Tournaments was Corigliano’s first significant work for orchestra, though it had to wait 15 years for its first performance.

As a curtain raiser of 12 minutes, Tournaments feels about three minutes too long yet its melodic warmth and scoring audacity—piccolo solos, raspy trombone slides, etc.—display Corigliano’s flamboyant panache for orchestral writing. Kalmar and the Grant Park musicians served up a brilliant and energetic performance.

Rarely heard Tchaikovsky is—well, rare—and two works of the Russian composer made up the rest of the program.

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2 remains an infrequent concert-hall visitor, even though it is arguably even more tuneful and exciting than its inescapable predecessor. The primary reason why the concerto is so rarely performed is due to its astoundingly difficult solo part. Written for the great virtuoso Nikolai Rubinstein, the Second Concerto’s complexities make the First Piano Concerto sound like Für Elise. It remains, in its original uncut form, still largely unventured even in today’s age of super-virtuosos.

On a chilly night in Chicago, Natasha Paremski came, played and conquered. Born in Russia and raised in California, the slender young pianist made a spectacular Chicago debut performing Tchaikovsky’s finger-busting original version of the Second Piano Concerto.

Unruffled by the cold weather in her sleeveless gown nor the myriad of digital difficulties, Paremski attacked the fusillade of octaves, runs and assorted keyboard landmines with iron-fingered dexterity and old-fashioned virtuosic élan. Yet she also brought out the lyricism with tender affection in the Andante—which morphs into a mini-triple concerto—with concertmaster Jeremy Black and principal cellist Walter Haman lending equally lovely support.

Taken at a fast tempo, the finale with its pinball-rocketing main theme was edge-of-the-seat thrilling, the acceleration and buildup to the final coda capping Paremski’s terrific and hugely impressive bravura performance. Kalmar and the orchestra provided similarly energized full-tilt accompaniment.

The only blot on the performance was a newspaper photographer with the world’s loudest shutter who rudely clicked away whenever Paremski touched the keys, oblivious to the noise and disruption he was creating for audience members trying to listen to the performance. This isn’t a Blackhawks game, buddy. Put a bag on that thing.

The brief second half offered another Tchaik rarity with Francesca da Rimini. The tone poem is inspired by Dante’s tale of the woman who indulges in an adulterous affair with her brother-in-law and the lovers are consigned to ride the winds of hell for all eternity. Francesca lacks the melodic indelibility of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, though it shares a similar structure and, in the hands of the right conductor, can make nearly as strong an impact.

As it surely did Wednesday with Kalmar leading a full-bore performance. The Grant Park musicians whipped up a daunting maelstrom of the damned, brought limpid tenderness to the central love (or lust) theme, and rounded off the tone poem with a dark and powerful coda.

Apropos of eternal damnation—at least calorically—a large Eli’s Cheesecake was wheeled out on stage at the end of the concert to celebrate the festival’s 80th anniversary. Not enough slices to go around for everyone that filled Millennium Park Wednesday but long may Chicago’s summer music festival continue.

The Grant Park Music Festival continues this weekend with Berlioz’s Romeo et Juliette. Performances are 6:30 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Auditorium Theatre. gpmf.org

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Pianist lights up Grant Park opener on a chilly night”

  1. Posted Jun 13, 2014 at 8:26 am by Laurel Prag

    If people would have exited on the east side of the park, they would have had more than enough cheese cake slices to go around. Lots of extras!

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