Kalmar, Grant Park Orchestra shine on with Diamond premiere

Sat Jul 04, 2015 at 12:20 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Tanja Tetzlaff performed Lalo's Cello Concerto with the Grant Park Orchestra Friday night. Photo: Norman Timonera
Tanja Tetzlaff performed Lalo’s Cello Concerto with the Grant Park Orchestra Friday night. Photo: Norman Timonera

This is the centennial year of two of the greatest American composers of the 20th century, but don’t worry if you missed it. Most of Chicago’s leading musical institutions did as well.

Both David Diamond and Vincent Persichetti were born in 1915. It’s a sad commentary on the current musical state of affairs in Chicago that the 100th birthday anniversary of two of the most prolific and accomplished American composers of the past century goes completely ignored.

Fortunately, Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra—the only local advocates for American music—rectified the omission in part by opening Friday night’s concert with Diamond’s Rounds for string orchestra.

Along with William Schuman, Diamond remains our leading composer in the genre, having written eleven symphonies, as well as three violin concertos and eleven string quartets. His music is consummately well crafted and richly melodic with a touching dark-hued lyricism.

I would have traded either of the symphonies by Randall Thompson and William Grant Still that are on tap at the lakefront festival later this summer for one by Diamond. Still, Rounds is a fine introduction to Diamond’s art and coming just a few days before the composer’s centennial (July 9), Friday’s terrific performance of this belated festival premiere made a worthy tribute.

Cast in three connected sections for string orchestra, Rounds is a challenge for even top musicians with some fiendishly difficult passages. It’s a credit to the Grant Park strings that, under Kalmar’s incisive direction, they came through with flying colors.

The players brought bracing vitality to the jaunty opening movement, and were fully in synch with Diamond’s distinctive brand of reflective melancholy in the Adagio. The syncopated finale went like the wind, with driving energy and accurate articulation at a lightning tempo, Kalmar keeping the contrapuntal cross-rhythms clear and transparent. Can we hope for a Diamond symphony next summer?

The centerpiece of the evening was Lalo’s Cello Concerto. It’s an amiable if rather lightweight and uneven work—think Saint-Saens without the craft—with the French composer’s over-reliance on loud punctuated chords in the opening movement driving one to distraction.

Tanja Tetzlaff proved a capable soloist Friday night. The German cellist played with polish and technical assurance, mining a nice vein of tender feeling in the Intermezzo. What was lacking was a sense of Gallic esprit and refinement with Tetzlaff’s heavy bow arm and rather literal style failing to find much charm or wit in a work that needs all the help it can get. Kalmar and the orchestra provided fiery, fitfully aggressive accompaniment.

Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 (“Rhenish”) closed the evening. Kalmar led a vital, spirited performance, which neatly characterized the five contrasted movements. The fourth section, inspired by Schumann’s visit to Cologne Cathedral, evoked an apt austere grandeur, and Kalmar and the musicians delivered the finale with buoyant energy.

Christopher Bell leads the Grant Park Orchestra in a Fourth of July concert 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Pritzker Pavilion. The program includes Bernstein’s Candide Overture, Gershwin’s Concerto in F with piano soloist Terrence Wilson, and music of Copland, Gould, Anderson and Sousa. gpmf.org

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