Sun finally smiles on a Grant Park Music Festival opening night

Thu Jun 18, 2015 at 1:23 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra opened the lakefront festival's 81st season Wednesday night. Photo: Norman Timonera
Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra opened the lakefront festival’s 81st season Wednesday night. Photo: Norman Timonera

You have to wonder why the weather gods seem to have it in for opening night at the Grant Park Music Festival.

In 2013 the opening concert was cancelled due to the threat of dangerous weather. Last year the season’s first concert was delayed 45 minutes by a torrential monsoon; when thunder and lightening ensued, the concert was called halfway through the program.

Wednesday’s gray skies and intermittent drizzle seemed to presage another soggy opening night at the Pritzker Pavilion. Happily, the evening stayed dry and the sun even peeked out briefly during the concert, allowing Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra to open the summer music festival’s 81st season in fine style.

Marking this week’s Stanley Cup win, Kalmar came out wearing a Blackhawks jersey, which seemed to lend an extra bit of civic pride and audience exuberance to the season-opening National Anthem.

Perhaps the title of Andrew Norman’s Drip Blip Sparkle Spin Glint Glide Glow Float Flop Chop Pop Shatter Splash was too great a temptation for the rain gods to resist. The piece fell victim to the 2013 cancellation and then proved unlucky a second time when it had to be jettisoned on another weather-shortened night last summer. The third time was the charm and the young American composer’s curtain-raiser finally had its lakefront hearing Wednesday night.

Even with the farcical title, Norman’s five-minute musical “tossed salad” is well crafted and great fun, an exercise in frenetic bursts of energy skittering around different sections and instruments, with wry wit displayed in the sudden pauses, unexpected dynamic shifts and contrasted timbres. Kalmer led a spirited and deftly balanced performance.

Long the most neglected of Rachmaninoff’s five works for piano and orchestra, the Russian composer’s Piano Concerto No. 1 seems to be having a renaissance, at least locally. Daniil Trifonov played a memorable performance with the CSO in April and Lise de la Salle will tackle it at Ravinia next month.

Yevgeny Sudbin performed Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No.1 Wednesday night. Photo: Norman Timonera
Yevgeny Sudbin performed Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.1 Wednesday night. Photo: Norman Timonera

Wednesday night it was the turn of Yevgeny Sudbin, who was making his Chicago debut. The Russian pianist clearly has a stellar technique and was virtually note perfect, handling the challenges with power and fluency, and bringing excitement to the bravura closing section.

Yet this was a sturdy outing rather than a distinguished one. Trifonov’s remarkable rendering found a terraced poetry and dark eloquence in the score that made a case for it as being of equal stature as the more familiar Rachmaninoff concertos that followed.

Sudbin was not on that level. The pianist  offered a polished yet routine performance that stayed largely on the surface, and only showed fitful rapport with Kalmar and the orchestra. Strangely, for music by one of his country’s most-celebrated composers, Sudbin played from a score on the piano lid that he rarely took his eyes off; the soloist’s necessary page-turning seemed to mitigate against a freer and more spontaneous engagement with the music.

Sudbin didn’t get much help from the amplification. As is often the case on Grant Park’s opening nights, the balance seemed off, with the Steinway emerging overloud and metallic. Apart from some reedy bassoon moments, Kalmar and the orchestra delivered highly committed support.

Music of Beethoven closed the evening and in the Symphony No. 7 Kalmar and the players were fully in the zone. The kinetic music-making of Grant Park’s artistic director proved well-suited to Beethoven’s most rhythmic symphony.

After a rather hard-edged introduction, the swing into the dancing Allegro’s main theme went with buoyant charm and elan, enhanced by Mary Stolper’s superb flute work. The Allegretto was especially fine—fresh, refined and ruminative with alert dynamic detailing in the strings by Kalmar.

After a vivacious third movement, the performance was rounded off with a fizzing finale, Kalmar building the insistent rhythms and cumulative drive to a combustible coda. The Grant Park Music Festival is open for business.

Carlos Kalmar leads the Grant Park Orchestra 6:30 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday in Mozart’s Overture to The Magic Flute, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 6 and the world premiere of Kenji Bunch’s Symphony No. 3 “Dream Songs.”

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Sun finally smiles on a Grant Park Music Festival opening night”

  1. Posted Jun 19, 2015 at 4:03 pm by Chuck Burkhead

    Mr. Sudbin displayed a bit more expressive verve during some of the rehearsal passages on Tuesday morning. This is one of the first opening rehearsals (if at all) that Maestro Kalmar has missed. His flight from Oregon was delayed and he couldn’t make the rehearsal. The gentleman who filled in did a good job on the basic “block and tackle” stuff but it didn’t achieve the productivity and nuance of a Kalmar rehearsal. Having only one rehearsal with him on the following day probably produced the secure but restrained performance–and using the score for frequent reference.

    The piano had the same hard, dissonant quality during the rehearsal. The “twanking” sound in the upper register was almost jarring, but did seem a little better during the actual performance. The odd but seasonal extreme temperature changes probably aren’t so good for keeping Steinways sounding optimal. Or any piano.

    Thanks for the explanatory notes on delightful opening work by Andrew Norman. The third attempt did come off well.

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