Despite heavy rain, the show goes on with Grant Park Music Festival’s superb season opener

Wed Jun 14, 2017 at 10:32 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Carlos Kalmar opened the Grant Park Music Festival season Wednesday night at the Pritzker Pavilion. FIle photo: Norman Timonera
Carlos Kalmar opened the Grant Park Music Festival season Wednesday night at the Pritzker Pavilion. File photo: Norman Timonera

What is it with the weather gods and opening night of the Grant Park Music Festival?

As seems almost customary in recent years, the first concert of Chicago’s lakefront summer music season was bedeviled by heavy rains Wednesday night. Following several days of hot and humid weather, the heavens opened in the early evening with thunder and lightning along with monsoon-like rains that flooded downtown streets and sidewalks.

It didn’t look promising for the Grant Park Orchestra’s opening concert at the Pritzker Pavilion. Fortunately, though the heavy rain persisted throughout the 90-minute program, the lightning moved away and the concert went on as scheduled. Good call by festival officials.

The concert managed to draw 2,000 hardy souls even in a driving rainstorm, a  festival spokesperson said. Grant Park audiences are tough.

Most importantly, the vital and polished performances led by artistic director Carlos Kalmar got Chicago’s summer music season off to a superb start. The program was emblematic, a typical, well-balanced Kalmar lineup with a popular concerto, an American work and a genuine rarity.

Leading off the soggy evening was music of Hugo Alfven. The prolific Swedish composer (1872-1960) was well regarded in his lifetime, though his music is rarely heard these days, especially in the U.S.

Judging by Alfven’s Festival Overture, we’ve been missing something. This lively ten-minute work is wholly delightful, an engaging mashup of a stately Wagnerian theme and perky round-dance tune first voiced by the bassoon. Quirky and charming, it shows there are Scandinavian composers worthy of revival beyond Grieg and Sibelius. Kalmar led the orchestra in a jaunty and rousing performance.

Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto seems to be losing a bit of its ironclad concert-hall status these days, possibly from overexposure and too many indifferent outings. Still, this fiddle warhorse still has plenty of life in the right hands, as shown with Vadim Gluzman’s bravura performance Wednesday night.

Vadim Gluzman
Vadim Gluzman

The Northbrook-based violinist is finally enjoying the high local profile he deserves. Fresh from last week’s North Shore Chamber Music Festival–which Gluzman founded and runs with his wife, pianist Angela Yoffee–he also had an outstanding appearance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra last December

Gluzman’s technique is as complete and unassailable as any violinist in the business today. Performing on the remarkable 1690 “ex-Leopold Auer” Stradivari, Gluzman served up a gleaming and authoritative performance, the sinewy sweetness of his instrument’s timbre ideally suited to Tchaikovsky’s music. (Tchaikovsky dedicated the concerto to Auer, who famously rejected it as “unplayable.” The celebrated violinist later became an advocate for the work, albeit in Auer’s own edition with a revised solo part.) 

Even on a meteorologically challenging night with heavy precipitation and quickly dropping temperatures, Gluzman maintained faultless intonation. The soloist blazed through the virtuosic pages of the opening movement with unruffled elan–even with a sudden, brief but deafening boost in amplification. (For the first night of the season, the sound levels and balancing were otherwise impeccable.)

The  violinist’s refined rendering of the Canzonetta brought out the dreamy, nocturnal expression without traversing the line to schmaltz, Kalmar and the orchestra providing atmospheric support. Taken at a fleet clip, the finale delivered the requisite fireworks with Gluzman’s blazing coda earning the soloist an instant and deserved standing ovation.

Until the last decade when Porgy and Bess has finally earned its rightful, hard-won place in the world’s leading opera houses, the best opportunity for audiences to encounter music from George Gershwin’s great opera was through orchestral arrangements. The most-traveled of these was Robert Russell Bennett’s Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture, which closed the evening.

This 1941 suite–commissioned by Fritz Reiner before he became music director of the CSO–is crafted with great skill. Bennett keeps largely to Gershwin’s masterful scoring and the canvas is dexterously stitched together, working in nearly all the opera’s musical highlights in just 23 minutes.

Kalmar’s bona fides in American music are well known and he led a stylish and high-stepping performance of Bennett’s confection. A slipshod banjo in “It ain’t necessarily so” apart, the Grant Park musicians put across well-groomed and exuberant playing, with a dazzling xylophone solo in the opening of Act 1, elegant violins in “Summertime” and “Bess, you is my woman now” and notably sassy trumpets in “There’s a boat dat’s leavin’ soon for New York.”

Carlos Kalmar conducts the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus in Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony and the “Four Sea Interludes” and Passacaglia from Britten’s Peter Grimes 6:30 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Pritzker Pavilion.

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment