Grant Park Orchestra vies with a Northerly disturbance in Mozart, Elgar

Sat Jun 16, 2018 at 11:35 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

William Hagen performed Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4 with the Grant Park Orchestra Friday night at the Pritzker Pavilion.

The Grant Park Music Festival’s season-opening concert on Wednesday proved just about ideal in every respect, from the performances to the amplification and the beautiful weather.

Friday also brought a lovely evening for the lakefront festival’s second program of the summer. And while Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra delivered solid performances, the concert fell prey to an unlucky array of al fresco sonic distractions that at times threatened to undermine the music altogether. As a famous line from On the Waterfront goes, “Kid, this ain’t your night.”

First off, the Pritzker Pavilion amplification, which expertly handled a host of tricky challenges on the opening program, sounded off all night. Orchestral textures emerged dim, grainy and muted with odd balancing that didn’t compliment the sound of the musicians, individually or as a collective.

Even more disastrous was a massive electronic bass rumbling, which appeared in the first half and returned with a vengeance after intermission.  A festival spokeswoman said Saturday morning that the sound was coming from a competing event at Northerly Island. (Thirty Seconds to Mars–actor Jared Leto’s band–was performing there Friday night, according to the Live Nation/Huntington Bank Pavilion website.) She said that the Grant Park production team had already contacted those in charge at the other venue to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

Let’s hope so. Northerly Island (the former site of Meigs Field) is just two miles south on the lakefront, and has a full slate of rock and pop concerts scheduled through the end of July. If their volume isn’t turned down, it’s going to be a very long summer for those attending classical programs in Millennium Park.

In addition to the thumping subterranean bass, add a parade of police sirens and screaming ambulance horns immaculately timed to bury the musicians at their quietest moments, and Friday was a night to persevere rather than triumph.

Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra members soldiered on with their usual poise and professionalism, though the performances sounded understandably unsettled at times.

The first half was devoted to 18th century music, an infrequent calling card at these concerts. Following a vigorous performance of Gluck’s Overture to Orfeo ed Euridice, William Hagen took the stage for Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4 in D major.

The young violinist began in straightforward fashion, with the opening movement of K.218 proficient rather than distinctive, though his playing of Mozart’s cadenza showed a more individual touch. The Salt Lake City native was at his best in the slow movement, flowing and gracious with a slender refinement just right for this music. Hagen added an extra bit of virtuosic fizz to the finale, spicing the Rococo elegance of the closing Rondeau just enough to keep things interesting without going out of period. Kalmar and the musicians provided alert accompaniment.

The Grant Park Orchestra sounded more in their post-Classical element after the interval with von Weber’s Overture to Euryanthe. Kalmar led a vital, well characterized performance, though one would have liked greater bite and presence to the horns in this repertoire. 

The Enigma Variations made Edward Elgar’s career and this devilishly clever set of variations depicting various eccentric friends of the composer, remains strikingly fresh and original nearly 120 years after its premiere.

The festival’s artistic director and principal conductor is an inspired Elgarian and Kalmar has led some memorable lakefront performances of the English composer’s music over the years. Yet the undulating bass wafting north from the Leto brothers made it difficult for Friday night’s Enigma to gain a foothold. 

Still, Kalmar and colleagues did their best, even if the hushed moments were often buried by the downtown enfilade of horns and sirens. “W.M.B.” went with worthy manic bluster, the strings plumbed an apt vein of nobilmente expression in “Nimrod” and Elgar’s own final variation rounded things off with confident energy.

The opening-night program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Pritzker Pavilion: Sean Shepherd’s Magiya, Haydn’s Symphony No. 99 and Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast.

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