Kalmar returns to Grant Park with spirited Mozart and two American symphonies

Thu Aug 06, 2015 at 10:30 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Inon Barnatan performed Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 17 Wednesday night at the Grant Park Music Festival. Photo: Norman Timonera
Inon Barnatan performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 Wednesday night at the Grant Park Music Festival. Photo: Norman Timonera

It was such a sublimely beautiful evening on Chicago’s lakefront Wednesday–80 degrees with a refreshing light breeze–that one felt like echoing Ernie Banks’ enthusiastic “Let’s play two!”

In fact, that’s sort of what was on tap. Back to conduct the final three weeks of the Grant Park Music Festival season, Carlos Kalmar led a program with a Mozart piano concerto framed by two American symphonies, both heard in their festival premieres. With the park at capacity, the event drew an audience of over 11,000.

Randall Thompson’s Symphony No. 2 led off the evening. Best known today for his choral music, the American composer’s three symphonies–like so much homegrown repertory–have fallen into undeserved obscurity. Kudos to Kalmar for reviving this music, which proved ideal for an al fresco setting.

Written in 1931, Thompson’s Symphony No. 2 is fully characteristic, cast in the composer’s engaging melodic vein yet with a harmonic sophistication and quirky individuality that raise it above the routine.

Kalmar invested the opening movement with an edgy vitality that gave it bite and bristling momentum. The affecting theme of the ensuing Largo has a simple homespun quality, and here Kalmar’s skill in American rep was manifest; the conductor gave lift to the violin melody as the firmly pointed contrapuntal pizzicatos in the lower strings skirted sentimentality.

Likewise, in the rhythmic accents of the Scherzo, Kalmar underlined the subversive woodwind interjections in the Capriccioso middle section. The lyrical theme that opens the finale segues into a spirited Allegro before returning in a rich, warm-hearted reprise at the coda. One could hardly imagine finer advocacy for Thompson’s neglected symphony than that provided by Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra.

After an impressive Chicago recital last November at the Harris Theater, Inon Barnatan returned Wednesday to make his festival debut with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17.

Even with a rather steely amplified piano, the Israeli pianist showed himself an inspired Mozartian, deftly mixing charm and vivacity. Barnatan plumbed the darker terrain of the Andante with a graceful rumination that was freely expressive yet nuanced in dynamics while remaining in Rococo style.

The final Allegretto is one of Mozart’s happiest inspirations with its lilting main theme inspired by the song of the composer’s pet starling. Here too the pianist blended nimble grace with admirable energy. Even with an off night by the Grant Park woodwinds, Kalmar and Barnatan proved simpatico collaborators in the delightful back and forth between soloist and orchestra in the finale. Barnatan earned one of the most enthusiastic ovations of the summer.

George Antheil’s A Jazz Symphony is one of those works more often read about than heard.  Premiered in 1925, a year after Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue changed music forever, the Jazz Symphony epitomizes a boisterous period of experimentation in American music when composers began to mix populist genres with the traditional classical orchestra, often pushing these limits to the breaking point.

Compared to Antheil’s legendary Ballet Mecanique for eight pianos, huge percussion and airplane propellers, the seven-minute Jazz Symphony by the “Bad Boy of Music” sounds almost quaint nearly a century after its premiere.

It may be slender stuff in its antic grab-bag of quick-passing influences but Jazz Symphony remains an intriguing historical document, and it’s hard to resist Antheil’s iconoclastic mashup of schmaltzy waltzes, sassy jazz and samba rhythms.

Kalmar led a high-stepping yet controlled performance, wisely resisting the urge to step hard on the pedal in music that is already miles over the top. Pianist Andrea Swan deftly threw off the syncopated keyboard solos.


The only blot on Wednesday’s concert came with the aleatoric contributions of a clueless elderly man on the left center aisle. After excruciating minutes spent slowly and solemnly opening his plastic-wrapped crackers, he then commenced to futz around with a wine bottle and jangling corkscrew for an extended period.

Isn’t it past time to ban food and liquor bottles in the front seating section to avoid this kind of nonsense? It’s a disservice to the musicians and huge distraction to the majority of the pavilion audience who are trying to listen to the performance.

Carlos Kalmar conducts Haydn’s Mass in B flat Major “Harmoniemesse” and John Adams’ Harmonielehre 6:30 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Pritzker Pavilion. gpmf.org.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Kalmar returns to Grant Park with spirited Mozart and two American symphonies”

  1. Posted Aug 08, 2015 at 2:43 pm by Jon

    Thank you so much for this insightful review, and in particular of the Randall Thompson symphony. As so often under the truly inspired conducting of Maestro Kalmar, we were treated to a blend of crisp musical detail, excellent development, and melodic beauty that have made the Grant Park Orchestra concerts a real joy to attend.

    Perhaps not as dramatically as your example reported from the left center aisle, food and drink truly do risk impairing the concert experience for music lovers. My report is from the center section of reserved seating: After the Thompson piece, a couple exchanged their seats, the woman now sitting just slightly to the left in front of me deposited her food back onto the empty seat directly in front of me, and then proceeded during the Mozart to shuffle her popcorn bag, so as to be able to feed both herself and her partner throughout the entire piece–punctuated now and then with attention to their drinks.

    I will just have to take your word that “Kalmar and Barnatan proved simpatico collaborators in the delightful back and forth between soloist and orchestra in the finale”, since the back and forth of food and drink administration unfortunately obscured the more sublime version apparently taking place on stage. Needless to say, I champion your plea to restrict such from the front seating section.

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