Grant Park Orchestra mixes it up with American rarity, Russian warhorse

Sun Jun 24, 2018 at 1:02 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Natasha Paremski performed Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Grant Park Orchestra Saturday night. Photo: Norman Timonera

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 may have been the box office click-bait for Saturday night’s program at the Grant Park Music Festival.

But for those motivated to attend by Carlos Kalmar’s longstanding advocacy for unsung American repertory, it was the Walter Piston symphony on the first half that was the evening’s main attraction.

As we approach the third decade of the 21st century, it seems that most homegrown composers of the past who are not named Leonard Bernstein are slipping into a memory hole. Even Aaron Copland’s music is becoming an increasing rarity on concert programs.

Fortunately, Chicago audiences can be grateful that Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra continue to champion leading, neglected American composers of the 20th century.

And few are more grievously neglected than Walter Piston. A teaching fixture at Harvard for decades, Piston wrote many works for the Boston Symphony Orchestra over his long career. Among them was his Sixth Symphony, commissioned for the BSO’s 75th anniversary; Charles Munch led the premiere in 1955.

The Sixth is characteristic of Piston’s lean style, imbued with rhythmic drive and contrapuntal rigor. Two harps add a Gallic coloring to scoring that is more richly upholstered than usual for Piston.

Yet there is nothing flashy or superficial about his music, which has a tough integrity about it. The long-limbed Adagio sereno is the heart of the work–searching and darkly introspective yet wholly unsentimental.

As approachable as Piston’s music for audiences, it is not so easy to conduct. Kalmar has an intuitive way with these overlooked American byways, and he led the Grant Park musicians in a driving and committed performance.

The playing put across the restless contrapuntal kick in the opening Allegro, with the harps’ contrasting descants like cooling balm. The scurrying violins of the ensuing movement went with dervish bustle.

Walter Haman’s sensitive cello solo launched the Adagio in an aptly ruminative vein. Kalmar gave the slow movement ample space to resonate, judging the ebb and flow with great skill, drawing a wide dynamic range, and leading inexorably to the music’s climax.

Striding drive and rhythmic bite characterized the brief finale, with Kalmar pointing up the punchy percussion accents and fugal brass writing en route to an emphatic coda, which rounded off a terrific performance. As with the comparably excellent festival performance of the composer’s Second Symphony two summers ago, it’s hard to imagine anyone today doing Piston’s music better than Kalmar and the Grant Park musicians.

Natasha Paremski made a spectacular Grant Park debut in the 2014 season-opening concert, playing the complete original version of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2–a work so tortuously difficult that few other keyboard artists touch it even today.

Paremski returned Saturday night in the better known but almost equally fearsome Third Piano Concerto of Rachmaninoff. Yet this time the results proved more mixed.

The Russian-American pianist displayed the same explosive technique as previously, vaulting through the fistfuls of notes in the opening movement and attacking the larger cadenza like a tigress leaping on her prey. Yet she also brought lyric delicacy to the intimate second theme and the inward pages of the Intermezzo.

Paremski began the finale with a similarly deft balancing of virtuosity and tenderness.  Yet she seemed to give in to her showier impulses halfway through, impatiently racing through the final iteration of the nostalgic section to get to the score’s fireworks. Worse, Paremksi seemed bent on setting a land-speed record in the closing section, playing so fast that the music was reduced to an undistinguishable blur. That may have made for superficial excitement, but it didn’t do any favors for Rachmaninoff’s music.

Nor was the concerto performance aided by an errant balancing of the amplification. The piano sounded like it was boosted significantly louder than usual, possibly to compensate with the bass rumbling from a concert at Northerly Island, which series disturbed the festival’s program a week ago. Yet the orchestra was too often left in the dust, with crucial wind and even percussion lines rendered nearly inaudible by the massive piano sound.

Carlos Kalmar conducts the Grant Park Orchestra 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Pritzker Pavilion. The program will include Roussel’s Le festin de l’araignée, Schubert’s Symphony No. 3 and flutist Adam Walker in Nielsen’s Flute Concerto and Griffes’ Poem.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Grant Park Orchestra mixes it up with American rarity, Russian warhorse”

  1. Posted Jun 25, 2018 at 11:07 am by Chris Scharf

    We left the concert a few minutes after the Rachmaninoff began due to the reasons given in your final paragraph. We enjoyed the Piston symphony, but the second half of the concert was ruined for us due to the Northerly Island noise and the overamplification of the piano.

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