From prison to ponies at the Grant Park Music Festival

Thu Jul 20, 2017 at 12:31 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Angelo Xiang Yu performed Saint-Saens' Violin Concerto No. 3 with the Grant Park Orchestra Wednesday night at the Pritzker Pavilion. Photo: Norman Timonera
Angelo Xiang Yu performed Saint-Saëns’ Violin Concerto No. 3 with the Grant Park Orchestra Wednesday night at the Pritzker Pavilion. Photo: Norman Timonera

The level of music-making at the Grant Park Music Festival is so consistently high that it always seems somewhat jarring when performances fail to reach a higher level.

Such was the case Wednesday night at the Pritzker Pavilion when conductor Brett Mitchell led the Grant Park Orchestra in his first festival appearance. The performances were mostly serviceable but only fitfully inspired in what must be considered a lackluster debut.

Associate conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, the young maestro got off on the wrong foot with a self-serving introduction in which Mitchell announced that he will become music director of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra in the fall–a scene from the movie “Who Cares?”–and that his first professional job was at Northern Illinois University (cue the polite applause). Moving on to the first work by Kenji Bunch, he essentially read the program notes, which audience members are perfectly capable of reading for themselves. These kind of empty and patronizing “Hello Chicago!” speeches are becoming far too common at the lakefront concert series where the performances should do the talking.

Written in 2011, Bunch’s Supermaximum takes its title from today’s top-security prisons and its musical inspiration from 20th-century chain gangs in the South. In those notorious camps, the largely black prisoners would raise their spirits while working by singing songs infused by gospel and country blues.

In his program note, Bunch goes on to make a plea for those who are incarcerated today who, he says, “experience an extreme denial of their humanity.” In a city currently besieged by nearly hourly shootings and unceasing gang violence that may be a tough sell for Chicago residents who don’t hold elective office.

Supermaximum begins with a slow, dragging motif that reflects the vocal rhythms of the roadside workers. The music gradually gains speed and other instruments enter as the music rises to more populist jazz-band riffs. The tempo slows again before ascending to a luminous melody, which descends to pianissimo before a loud final chord.

Munch’s 12-minute work is artfully scored and crafted with skill but there is a slick, lightweight quality about it and the populist style fails to convey the weight and gravitas of its stated program. Mitchell led the orchestra in a well-played rendering, performed with conviction.

When Camille Saint-Saëns was asked to compare himself with Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, he replied that he considered himself “in the first rank of the second-rate composers.” His witty comment was on target, yet the French composer’s engaging, surely crafted music makes ideal summer concert fare.

Angelo Xiang Yu was the soloist in Saint-Saëns’ Violin Concerto No. 3 Wednesday night. The Chinese violinist has an undeniably impressive technique and sailed through the outer movements’ challenges with sturdy musicianship and a sweet, beguiling tone.

Saint-Saëns’ music may not be deep, but there’s more to it than just playing the notes. While Yu’s performance was technically secure, it was crucially lacking in essential Gallic charm. His phrasing in the opening movement was square and faceless, missing a light touch and caprice. Likewise there was little delicacy or expressive nuance in the slow movement, the soloist unaided by some fallible wind playing in the orchestra. The overt pyrotechnics of the finale suited Yu best. He brought fiery style to the opening cadenza and admirable bravura though, here too, the lilting second subject was blandly played.

Charm was also absent in the performance of Aaron Copland’s suite from The Red Pony, which closed the evening. Copland’s score for the forgotten 1948 film is not among the composer’s most timeless works, a tired retread of his folkish Americana style.

Mitchell led a capable performance that conveyed the majestic, open-plains quality of “Morning on the Ranch” and underlined the jazzy touches in “Walk to the Bunkhouse.”

But there was little tenderness in “The Gift” or piquant humor in “Dream March–Circus Music,” with Mitchell’s anodyne approach missing Copland’s homespun simplicity.

Scores like this need the kind of extra advocacy and loving care Carlos Kalmar routinely brings to American music. Fortunately, the festival’s artistic director returns next week.

Ted Sperling leads the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus in an evening of Broadway musical selections with singers Laura Osnes and Santino Fontana 6:30 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Pritzker Pavlion.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “From prison to ponies at the Grant Park Music Festival”

  1. Posted Jul 21, 2017 at 7:36 am by Alex Schneider

    I’m a retired violinist and have had the opportunity of accompanying Itzhak Perlamn, Gil Shaham, and Maxim Vengerov the very Saint-Saens Violin Concerto in my 30 years of orchestra career. Yet after the performance by Angelo Xiang Yu, his performance became my favorite. He has such magical touch on the instrument, beautiful tone, velvet color, and superb technique. I wonder if this critic Lawrence A. Johnson really attended the concert or just simply walked through the park. Just because Mr. Yu is Asian doesn’t mean he is a technician. On the contrary, he may have missed one or two notes due to the hot weather for such outdoor concert, if you really have to criticize something; but his playing was so musical and artistic that I had to hold my breath to enjoy every note throughout the concert. Especially towards the end of the slow movement, I couldn’t help burst into tears because of his heartfelt phrasing. Same for Brett Mitchell, such a great conductor with huge amout of charisma, and such ease on the stage. Mr. Johnson should be ashamed for himself, and certainly, he will be despised by us musicians.

  2. Posted Jul 21, 2017 at 11:31 am by Burt

    From a Chicagoan who doesn’t hold elected office: I’m sorry to say that Mr. Johnson’s smirking implication of incarceration as an antidote to our city’s gun violence missed the mark for me.

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