Grant Park Orchestra goes underground but soars with Bruckner

Sat Aug 01, 2015 at 2:47 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Christoph  König conducted the Grant Park Orchestra in Bruckner's Symphony No. 6 Friday night  at the Harris Theater. Photo: Norman Timonera
Christoph König conducted the Grant Park Orchestra in Bruckner’s Symphony No. 6 Friday night at the Harris Theater. Photo: Norman Timonera

One welcome aspect of the annual weekend when Lollapalooza chases the Grant Park Music Festival indoors to the subterranean depths of the Harris Theater is the opportunity to hear the Grant Park Orchestra sans amplification. Being able to enjoy this terrific ensemble of musicians unplugged in a worthy acoustic makes one appreciate even more what a cultural treasure we have on Chicago’s lakefront.

Add one of the most impressive podium debuts of recent seasons with Christoph König, and Friday night’s concert of Bruckner and Weber offered a musical highlight of the year. You have one more chance to catch this program tonight.

König maintains a busy conducting schedule in Europe, leading concerts as well as opera. In recent seasons, he has started building a presence on this side of the Atlantic, having conducted several regional stateside orchestras.

The German conductor clearly knows what he is about in this repertory. König directs the musicians with a natural authority and clear, flowing gestures. Nothing was superfluous or for show yet the performances had hair-trigger responsiveness and excitement as well as musical integrity. Christoph König is a conductor we need to hear more of in Chicago.

The opening Overture to Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Der Freischütz set the tone for the evening. König led a spacious and reverent rendering of the introduction with vividly projected playing of the Allegro theme. String tone was burnished and fluently blended and the horns conveyed the strange primeval mystery of this über-German forest music. The final section culminated in a blazing coda, no less exciting for being held on a firm rein.

At 54 minutes, the Symphony No. 6 is a concise work by Bruckner standards. Yet though less often heard than his most popular works in the genre—this concert marked its belated festival premiere—the Sixth is one of the Austrian composer’s finest efforts, with a wealth of indelible melody and soaring brass in the composer’s best sonic-cathedral style.

The introduction to the first movement felt offhand Friday night, wanting in tension and expectation, but after that König and the Grant Park musicians didn’t put a foot wrong.

In the epic opening movement, the conductor displayed the modern penchant for Bruckner with quickish tempos and a streamlined approach. Yet in music that can sometimes seem repetitive and long-winded, that’s no vice. Contrasts were firmly pointed, tempos well-judged and balances impeccable, with strings and winds always audible even with the brass in full cry.

Any sense that this was going to be emotionally cool and technocratic Bruckner was dispelled in the ensuing Adagio. From the opening notes—cribbed by Leonard Bernstein for “Somewhere” in West Side Story—the playing was deeply expressive and strikingly beautiful across all sections. König paced the ebb and flow of Bruckner’s long paragraphs with flexible authority, the music unfolding with an organic inevitability and musical logic that felt as natural as breathing. Dynamic markings were observed in a similarly alert yet unfussy way, not least in the glowing solace of the coda—unfortunately spoiled Friday night by a cacophony of unmuffled coughs, loudly dropped programs and a metal walker clattering to the floor.

The Scherzo of the Sixth is one of Bruckner’s best and was given massive weight and striding swagger by König and the orchestra, the horns bestowing regal splendor in the contrasting trio.

The Grant Park strings opened the finale with an airy Mendelssohnian lightness, violins especially pure-toned and agile under concertmaster Jeremy Black. König built the soaring edifice of the finale with a patient yet compelling and inexorable momentum, never overdoing the volume or pushing the speed (“nicht schnell” is the marking), which made the resplendent coda feel earned and justifiably triumphant.

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

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