Grant Park Orchestra goes deep with Mozart and Brahms

Sat Aug 02, 2014 at 11:40 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Arnaldo Cohen performed Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 with Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra Friday night at the Harris Theater. Photo: Norman Timonera
Arnaldo Cohen performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 with Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra Friday night at the Harris Theater. Photo: Norman Timonera

For Chicago classical aficionados, there is an upside to the annual summer weekend when Lollapalooza forces the Grant Park Orchestra down into the subterranean depths of the Harris Theater.

First, fine as the Pritzker Pavilion’s amplification system is, there is nothing like hearing an orchestra unplugged to get a true and accurate picture of their sound. Friday night’s concert at the Harris Theater provided an even greater appreciation of the Grant Park musicians’ superb qualities.

Second, the concert, led by Carlos Kalmar, offered another rewarding event despite a late cancellation by the evening’s soloist.

The program began with Con Brio by Jörg Widmann. The German composer’s 12-minute work is inspired by Widmann’s affection for Beethoven, especially his Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, where the marking “con brio” (“with energy”) figures prominently.

After an opening timpani roll, Con Brio proceeds through a series of emphatic slashing chords amid much varied percussion rumbling and col legno bow tapping. Buried within this restless, roiling music, thematic and rhythmic fragments of Beethoven can be glimpsed passing by, as if in a distorted sonic mirror. Yet, for all the seeming cacophony, Widmann shows a sure sense of pacing and dramatic incident, with a triumphant brass fanfare near the end before the music runs out of energy and ends in a quiet coda. Kalmer led a taut and well played performance.

Markus Groh was scheduled to be the soloist in Bartok’s Third Piano Concerto but the German pianist cancelled due to illness. Fortunately, Arnaldo Cohen was the replacement, with a neat switch of repertory from Bartok to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, a work better suited to music-making indoors.

Born in Brazil, Cohen has been a professor of piano at Indiana University in Bloomington for the past decade. Though perhaps better known for Romantic repertory–he played Rachmaninoff with Kalmar and the Oregon Symphony last February—Cohen proved himself a fine Mozartian, playing with an easy fluency and assured style. The famous solo line of the Andante—the apotheosis of Rococo elegance—was rendered with poised, unfussy simplicity.

If Cohen’s playing lacked something in individuality, the Brazilian pianist displayed an idiosyncratic touch in his choice of quirky yet strangely idiomatic cadenzas by the great Romanian pianist Dinu Lipatti. (Cohen obtained the cadenzas from Lipatti’s widow after becoming intrigued by hearing Lipatti’s Mozart performances with Herbert von Karajan on the radio.) The performance was rounded off with a fast and energetic finale with tight and alert support by Kalmar and the Grant Park players.

Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 wrapped the evening in worthy fashion. If the closing Passacaglia still seemed like a work in progress Friday, Kalmar directed a satisfying reading, strongly projected yet flexible with a notably energetic Scherzo. The Andante was the heart of this performance, finely balanced and beautifully played with a lean yet tender expression that skirted sentimentality.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Harris Theater.

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