Flutist offers a dazzling double turn at Grant Park Music Festval

Thu Jun 28, 2018 at 12:12 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Flutist Adam Walker performed music of Nielsen and Griffes Wednesday night at the Grant Park Music Festival. Photo: Norman Timonera

The Grant Park Music Festival offered a typically venturesome program Wednesday night, demonstrating yet again why Chicago’s lakefront concert series remains the summer destination of choice for discerning classical audiences. Four rarely heard works were on tap, including two festival premieres, all delivered with polish, verve and commitment in a brisk, intermission-less 90 minutes.

The evening led off with music from Albert Roussel’s Le Festin de l’Araignee (The Feast of the Spider). The French composer’s own suite of “Symphonic Fragments” offers a generous 16-minutes from this one-act ballet. 

Roussel’s superb music is unjustly neglected these days and his score for this oddball garden-insect scenario is wholly delightful. Kalmar led the orchestra in refined, supple playing that deftly balanced the ballet’s wry irony and lyric elegance.

There was flute and string playing of great delicacy in the Impressionistic Prelude, and a witty quick march for the “Entry of the Ants.” Concertmaster Jeremy Black contributed an aptly silken violin solo in the lilting “Dance of the Butterfly,” and the ballet concludes with a mock-solemn dirge for the funeral procession of the short-lived Dayfly. The Grant Park musicians delivered refined and flexible playing throughout that conveyed the lyric charm and dark whimsy of Roussel’s clever confection.

Booking a flute soloist at an outdoor venue is living a bit dangerously, even with amplification. Not to worry. Adam Walker, principal flute of the London Symphony Orchestra put across remarkably stylish and dazzling playing in two works, providing the finest solo outing of this young summer season. (After a jarringly over-miked piano last week, the amplification balance between Walker’s flute and the orchestra proved ideal.)

After hearing the Copenhagen Wind Quintet perform his music, Carl Nielsen vowed to write solo concertos for each member of the group. Sadly, the Danish composer only lived to complete two, for clarinet and flute.

Nielsen’s Flute Concerto is less overtly dramatic than most works in the genre, centered on a fantasy-like expression and cordial exchanges with other winds in the orchestra. Yet nearly all of Nielsen’s music paints a world where order is invariably upended by disorder; so too here, as a bumptious bass trombone comically shadows and tries to upstage the  flutist’s elegant solo moments.

Adam Walker was fully in synch with this rather enigmatic work. The flutist performed with rich tone and impeccable taste throughout, his long-breathed legato in the E major theme (inimitably Nielsen) quite gorgeous. Walker’s technical arsenal is complete, and he vaulted through the sudden virtuosic bursts with seemingly unruffled ease. Kalmar and the orchestra supported their soloist with equally characterful support, not least the subversive bass trombone of Graeme Mutchler.

With Nielsen’s concerto spanning just 19 minutes, Walker filled out his solo stand with the Poem of Charles Tomlinson Griffes. The American composer’s lyric miniature may be audition boilerplate for flute students but Walker floated a gorgeous, gently pastoral rendition that wholly avoided routine.

The evening concluded with Schubert’s Symphony No. 3. These symphonies make such companionable al fresco fare, it’s surprising that Schubert doesn’t turn up more often on summer concert programs. Apart from the tragic “Unfinished” and the vast “Great” C major, most Schubert symphonies are lighter in profile and duration but that doesn’t make them any less worthy or enjoyable.

In his introduction, Kalmar said he had a great fondness for the Third Symphony since it was the first work he ever conducted, as a student in high school. That experience, he said, set him on the road to his podium career, Kalmar charmingly adding “They didn’t kick me out of school and I’m still here!”

Kalmar led a vital and spirited performance that brought out all the varied excellence of this music. The faux-tragic introduction of the opening movement was contrasted delightfully with the effervescent main theme. The burbling winds highlihted the Allegretto, and proved equally charming in the rustic trios of both inner movements.

The Presto finale rounded off the performance and concert in lively style, the quirky rhythms of this quasi-tarantella theme given buoyant lift. Perhaps Kalmar and the orchestra will consider embarking on a complete Schubert symphony cycle with this fine performance of the Third serving as a first installment.

Johannes Moser performs Dvořák’s Cello Concerto on this weekend’s Grant Park Music Festival program with Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra. The all-Czech program also includes Kodaly’s Summer Evening and Janáček’s Sinfonetta. Concerts are 6:30 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Pritzker Pavilion. gpmf.org

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