Chicago-born conductor makes strong Grant Park debut

Thu Jul 13, 2017 at 11:03 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Fawzi Haimor conducted the Grant Park Orchestra Wednesday night at the Pritzker Pavilion. Photo: Fareine Suarez
Fawzi Haimor conducted the Grant Park Orchestra Wednesday night at the Pritzker Pavilion. Photo: Fareine Suarez

We’re just past the midpoint of the Grant Park Music Festival season and this week is proving a notable one for podium debuts. The much-lauded Australian Simone Young makes her Chicago bow this weekend in the lakefront concert series. And Wednesday night marked the first festival appearance of Fawzi Haimor leading the Grant Park Orchestra.

Born in Chicago and currently resident in San Francisco, Haimor has served as resident conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and becomes music director of Germany’s Württembergische Philharmonie this fall.

The 33-year-old maestro made a strong lakefront debut Wednesday night. Haimor showed himself as much at ease delivering his verbal program notes as eliciting impressive performances on the festival’s short rehearsal schedule.

Haimor opened the evening with Ramal by Kareem Roustom. The title of this 2014 work refers to one of the three meters of ancient Arabic poetry. Though Ramal has no direct program, Roustom says, the current state of the world and the ongoing devastation in his native Syria clearly had some influence.

Ramal is launched with a series of violent metallic chords and the 12-minute work is characterized by a nervous driving energy. There are fleeting respites with a brief lyrical section and an elegiac passage for solo violin evoking a mournful Middle Eastern flavor. Yet a restless agitation dominates with the ceaseless tempo fluctuations seeming to reflect the unsettled religio-political strife of his homeland.

This is strong, defiant music, crafted with skill and scored with confidence. Haimor–himself of Lebanese-Jordanian background–led the Grant Park musicians in a committed and muscular performance with concertmaster Jeremy Black contributing an evocative violin solo.  The Syrian-American composer was on hand to share in the enthusiastic applause.

Franz Josef Haydn remains the most neglected of the “great” composers so it was good to have his music represented Wednesday night, albeit in his most familiar symphony, No. 104 in D major, the “London.”

In the modern manner Haimor leaned toward fast tempos in all four movements. A less bracing pace would have allowed for more expressive nuance in the Andante yet it was hard to cavil with such stylish and elegantly pointed playing. Likewise, in a fleet Menuet the rustic rhythmic element was rather glided over but Haimor drew a nice contrast in the trio with fluid, characterful wind playing.

Haydn’s music is deceptively challenging to pull off and overall Haimor showed a gracious, idiomatic touch with fine transparency and dynamics surely marked. The slow introduction to the opening movement had ample breadth and weight, dovetailing neatly into a vital, amiable Allegro. In the vivacious finale Haimor and the players delivered Haydn’s music with a winning blend of musical wit and infectious energy.

Paul Hindemith’s prolific output of “utility music” has its share of busy contrapuntal grayness. But despite its deadpan title, the German composer wrote no more engaging music than his Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber, which closed the evening.

Retooling material from various Weber ephemera, Hindemith tarted up the mundane originals with audacious coloring in this sly and witty concoction.

Haimor drew striking textural clarity in Hindemith’s suite with a daringly wide dynamic range–on an especially noisy night of downtown sirens—which allowed the resourceful scoring to pay off. The “Turandot” Scherzo was especially inspired, the antic, whirring percussion registering fully and the jazz element of the brass writing boldly manifest. The concluding march, again impeccably balanced, closed the evening with all due energy and quirky swagger.

Fawzi Haimor is clearly a gifted young conductor and has earned himself a return engagement to Grant Park with this impressive debut. The CSO should find space for him on its substitute maestro list as well.

Simone Young conducts the Grant Park Orchestra 6:30 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Pritzker Pavilion. The program includes Matthew Hindson’s Headbanger, Strauss’s Symphonia Domestica, and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with soloist Andrew Tyson.

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