Sub conductor New makes outstanding debut at Grant Park Music Festival

Sat Jul 15, 2017 at 2:12 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Gemma New conducted the Grant Park Orchestra Froday night at the Pritzker Pavilion. Photo: Norman Timonera
Gemma New conducted the Grant Park Orchestra Friday night at the Pritzker Pavilion. Photo: Norman Timonera

Out with the Young and in with the New.

After arriving in Chicago to conduct this weekend’s Grant Park Music Festival concerts Simone Young had to fly back to her native Australia due to a family emergency.

Fortuitously, her young New Zealand colleague Gemma New happened to be in town and took over rehearsals after Young departed. The plan was to fly in another conductor to lead the actual concerts but New so impressed the Grant Park Orchestra musicians in rehearsal that they demanded that she be allowed to conduct.

Making a Chicago debut under such fraught circumstances might have unnerved even a veteran maestro—not least when the main work on the program is Richard Strauss’s sprawling Symphonia Domestica.

Yet New proved an outstanding presence at Friday night’s concert at the Pritzker Pavilion–confident and fully in command, leading the musicians with an incisive yet flexible beat, and attentive to details as well as the broader sweep. Her podium style is devoid of gratuitous showmanship, largely letting the music speak for itself.

Strauss’s Symphonia Domestica has never achieved the popularity of his other tone poems, likely due to its difficulties as well as the huge forces called for (including eight horns and four saxophones). Even so, it’s hard to account for the work’s neglect, since this “domestic symphony” remains one of Strauss’s wittiest, most enjoyable and warm-hearted works.

The 42-minute symphony offers a day in the life of the Strauss household with themes representing the composer, his formidable wife Pauline, and their infant son Franz. Yet rather than corny or sentimental, Strauss’s music is characteristically wry and ironic; it’s hard to miss the baby’s cries in the bath and the nocturnal “love scene”–an impressively majestic session–is as musically graphic as anything in the composer’s Salome or Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtensk (and much more amusing). The work concludes with an argument between the couple painted in a massive double fugue–the marital strife quelled with one of Strauss’s most loving, richly lyrical inspirations. The finale is capped by one of the wackiest codas in the repertory–reflecting the Strauss household cacophony–with several false endings before the composer emphatically has the last word.

Needless to say, Symphonia Domestica is not an easy piece to pull off. But even with a short and unsettled week of rehearsals, Gemma New led the Grant Park Orchestra in a vibrant, committed and hugely spirited performance.

There were a few flubs early on including a split high trumpet note and an oddly echoey oboe d’more (at least as amplified). 

Yet the performance gained in polish and assurance as it unfolded. New urged the musicians on with an engaging spirit, keeping this Leviathan on the tracks and drawing textural clarity even in Strauss’s most uninhibited passages.

At times one wanted New to let the big tuttis rip with greater volume and abandon than she did Friday night. Yet by holding the reins firmly and refusing to let the music peak too soon–in a score with many peaks–it made the crazed finale pay off even more uproariously.

The conductor was rewarded with a long and resounding ovation for saving the evening’s concert and doing it so convincingly. The Grant Park players excelled under her baton and New was generous in acknowledging musicians by section and individually to share in the applause.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 was heard on the first half with soloist Andrew Tyson. The young pianist has won a raft of awards and honors including an Avery Fisher Career Grant and First Prize at the Geza Anda Competition.

Tyson showed a worthy technique with even, fleet articulation in the outer movements. But this was at best a workmanlike Beethoven outing from a young musician who requires more seasoning and artistic maturity. Tyson’s tone was consistently loud and unvaried; he didn’t get any help from the amplification, which rendered his Steinway pingy and shallow, and emphasized his heavy right hand.

The pianist’s playing was clean but with little dynamic or expressive nuance, most evident in his literal approach to the Adagio. In the final section of that movement he explored a more gentle and searching repose, and sensitive touches like that would have benefited the performance elsewhere. The stylish, quicksilver accompaniment by New and the orchestra provided some of the charm and personality lacking from their soloist.

The evening opened with Headbanger by Matthew Hindson. As the title suggests, the Australian composer draws on rock music elements for this six-minute curtain-raiser. But these kind of populist quasi-overtures are a dime a dozen and there wasn’t much that was unique or interesting amid the motoric rhythms and hard-charging riffs. Still, it made for a diverting enough opener with New leading a lively performance.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

Posted in Performances

3 Responses to “Sub conductor New makes outstanding debut at Grant Park Music Festival”

  1. Posted Jul 20, 2017 at 12:08 pm by Mike Miller

    Gemma New led the best performance of Richard Strauss’ magnificent “Symphonia Domestica” that I have ever heard either live or on record. That she was able to elicit such an extraordinary interpretation on such short notice speaks to her incredible talent. The Grant Park Festival would be well advised to have Gemma New return next summer. It would be the highlight of the season!

  2. Posted Jul 21, 2017 at 2:00 pm by Milk McMickmic

    I think the Grant Park Music Festival has found their successor to current Music Director Carlos Kalmar. Gemma New clearly has the “chops” for it–proving it with such an amazing job with almost no time for preparation–and she is the best guest conductor to come though in years. New would bring a freshness to a Grant Park Orchestra that is tiring of Kalmar’s Teutonic heavy-handedness.

  3. Posted Jul 23, 2017 at 6:04 pm by George Matusek

    Those who enjoyed Gemma New’s conducting might be interested in knowing that she is the assistant conductor for an orchestra not too far from Chicago, the Saint Louis Symphony.

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