Alsop’s crossover program offers mixed rewards at Grant Park

Sat Jul 23, 2016 at 11:14 am

By Tim Sawyier

Jazz violinist Regina Carter performed at the Grant Park Music Festival Friday night. Photo: Norman Timonera
Jazz violinist Regina Carter performed at the Grant Park Music Festival Friday night. Photo: Norman Timonera

Conductor Marin Alsop continued her weeklong residency at the Grant Park Music Festival Friday night at the Pritzker Pavilion. The first female conductor of a major American orchestra (the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra), Alsop led the Grant Park Orchestra in a survey of African-American composers’ contributions to American classical music as part of the 35th anniversary celebrations of the MacArthur Foundation fellowships.

The overstuffed evening was of a more or less high standard throughout, yet had a few lapses of conceptual judgment and taste.

The Harlem Symphony of James P. Johnson led off the proceedings, which Alsop introduced by describing her considerable efforts to locate its score. (She ultimately found it in the attic of a surviving relative of the composer.) Sadly, after hearing the work it was obvious Alsop’s talents could have been put to better use.

Overall this work from the composer of “The Charleston” leaves the impression of dated film music. Its depictions of different New York neighborhoods in the opening “Subway Journey” were indistinguishable from one another, and the central movements were vacuous, lacking any persuasive thematic development. The closing “Baptist Mission,” a brooding set of variations on the hymn “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me,” plumbed more profound depths and featured some stylish playing from the GPO brass section, only to end with a trite Picardy third on the closing chord.

Jazz violinist Regina Carter, a 2006 MacArthur Fellow, joined Alsop (herself a 2005 Fellow) for two selections from Duke Ellington to round out the first half. John Clayton’s arrangement of “Slave Song/Come Sunday” from Black, Brown and Beige featured stylish playing from Carter, who brought languor to the movement’s ubiquitous slides. Carter’s performance in “Imagine My Frustration” had both swagger and poise, bringing the audience to a standing ovation at its close.

Carter was backed up in the Ellington numbers by Xavier Davis on piano, Chris Lightcap on bass, and Alvester Garnett on drums, all of whom periodically contributed polished solos. Between the Ellington works this quartet performed an original composition by its drummer (Garnett) called New for New Orleans. Written in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, this short piece persuasively channels Dixieland jazz, at one point breaking out into a raucous quotation from “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

The second half turned from jazz to another genre strongly associated with African Americans: the spiritual. By way of an introduction to Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 “From the New World,” the ladies of soprano trio TreDiva—Jonita Lattimore, Anisha McFarland, and Elizabeth Norman-Sojourner—sang A Whole World Medley, their own arrangement of spirituals, accompanied by Fred Nelson III on piano. Highlights included “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” “Ride on King Jesus,” “Deep River,” and “There is a Balm in Gilead,” all of which soared on the trio’s exquisitely balanced voices.

Dvořák’s best-known symphony followed as the evening’s centerpiece, and Alsop led a largely invigorating performance. She brought a subtle rubato to the introductory Adagio, and intelligently highlighted oft-missed counterpoints in the ensuing Allegro molto.

TreDiva and Nelson returned between the first and second movements to sing W. A. Fischer’s arrangement of “Going Home,” the later song that was written to the English horn melody of the symphony’s Largo. While the trio excelled vocally, this addition was gratuitous and redundant. It disrupted the flow of Dvořák’s larger work, only added to an already overlong evening, and made for a feeling of “Now you’ve heard it, now hear it again!”

Judith Kulb’s tender English horn playing highlighted the symphonic performance of the Largo, which Alsop paced admirably from start to finish. The Scherzo was unsettled at times, with moments of unsteadiness attributable to fitful fussiness from the conductor. The closing Allegro con fuoco bristled with energy, with Alsop elegantly calibrating its undulating closing moments.

James P. Johnson’s Victory Stride served as something of a scheduled encore. The five-minute work sounded like a cross between Anne Dudley’s theme music for the BBC’s Jeeves and Wooster and the score for a Roger Rabbit caper, complete with brass principals standing for their (albeit well executed) solos. What would have been wrong with sending the large audience into the night with the final, glowing E Major chord of “From the New World” ringing in its ears?

This program repeats 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Pritzker Pavilion.

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