A Russian rarity and impressive debut highlight Grant Park concert

Thu Jun 30, 2016 at 11:47 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Juho Pohjonen perfoimed Chopin's Piano Concerto No.2 with Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra Wednesday night, Photo: Norman Timonera
Juho Pohjonen performed Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra Wednesday night. Photo: Norman Timonera

Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov has maintained a presence in the concert hall almost entirely through his ineradicable tone poem Scheherazade.

Carlos Kalmar led off Wednesday night’s Grant Park Orchestra concert at the Pritzker Pavilion not with the Russian’s familiar showpiece, but with his earlier, rarely heard, Antar.

Though first published as his Symphony No. 2, Rimsky later had misgivings about calling Antar a symphony, ultimately branding it a symphonic suite in his final revision (and so it was billed in the Grant Park program).

Cast in four movements, Antar, like Scheherazade, has a similar exotic Arabian program, with the title character rescuing a gazelle who transitions into a queen. 

Rimsky was correct in not calling this somewhat discursive work a symphony. The invention is more pallid than Scheherazade and the orchestration lacks the brilliance and audacity of that later, greater work.

Still Antar has characteristic moments of Rimsky’s melodic charm and piquant scoring. As he so often does with repertoire rarities, Kalmar made the strongest possible case for this curio, with inspired playing by the Grant Park musicians. The woodwinds were especially fine,  bringing apt exotic flavor to their sinuous solo lines.

The evening’s centerpiece was Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with soloist Juho Pohjonen making his festival debut.

The Finnish pianist showed a clear sympathy for the Polish composer’s tricky idiom, nicely balancing tonal elegance and virtuosic fire. Pohjonen distilled a limpid line in the Larghetto’s long cantilena and brought refined bravura to the quasi-mazurka rhythms of the finale. There’s not much of a role for the orchestra in Chopin’s concertos, but Kalmar led sympathetic accompaniment, a deadpan bassoon solo in the first movement apart.

Like most American composers of his generation and after, Christopher Rouse’s music often shows a strong inspiration of rock music.

That’s certainly the case with Thunderstuck, which received its debut from the New York Philharmonic last fall. The playful nine-minute romp makes an enjoyable concert opener–or, in this case, closer–and is scored with typical flair, boasting jazzy drum solos, syncopated rhythms and a closing riff on Jay Ferguson’s 1978 hit Thunder Island.  Kalmar and the Grant Park musicians served up a lively, whipcrack performance in this Chicago premiere.

Carlos Kalmar leads the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus in Dvořák’s The Golden Spinning Wheel and Martinů’s The Epic of Gilgamesh 6:30 p.m Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Pritzker Pavilion. gpmf.org

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