A pianist’s poetic debut and an American symphony revived at the Grant Park Music Festival

Thu Aug 09, 2018 at 1:14 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

George Li performed Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Grant Park Orchestra Wednesday night. Photo: Norman Timonera

Heading into the homestretch of the Grant Park Music Festival’s season, Carlos Kalmar led an artful program Wednesday night that shows the lakefront series at its best: an early romantic concerto, a neglected 20th-century American symphony and two retro transcription bonbons.

The headline event at the Pritzker Pavilion was the festival debut of George Li as soloist in Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor.

The Polish composer wrote both of his concertos as vehicles for himself while barely out of his teens. Chopin soon realized that his art was an essentially intimate one and concentrated almost entirely on solo piano works for the rest of his short life, dying of tuberculosis at age 39.

Chopin’s concertos have come in for a fair amount of criticism over the years, not without some justification. Like many concertos of the era written by virtuosos (like Hummel), the solo writing is often centered on note-spinning filigree; further, the lumbering orchestral part—in the long first movement especially—is reliant on repetitive rum-ti tum.

Yet Li delivered such a fresh and winning account of Chopin’s Op. 11, that his performance renewed one’s faith in this score. The 22-year-old pianist brought an ideal blend of polished technique, elegant virtuosity and poetic sensibility.

The 20-minute opening movement can feel like a forced march, but Li’s sparkling passagework and supple rubato consistently brought out the improvisational quality of Chopin’s keyboard writing. With his easy eloquence, Li had one hanging on every note to see what artful bit of dynamic shading or phrasing would come next. (Likewise, Kalmar and the Grant Park players found more nuance and subtlety in the orchestral writing than most collaborators.)

The opening notes of the Romanza’s limpid theme would have benefited from a more hushed and inner expression, though Li’s touch here was otherwise poised and unfailingly sensitive. In the concluding Rondo, the soloist brought just the right rippling panache to the insouciant theme. Li has clearly earned himself an invitation back to the lakefront festival.

The evening led off with the Symphony in D by John Vincent.

Vincent was well regarded in his lifetime (1902-77) though more as an educator than a composer. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, he studied under Frederick Converse and George Chadwick at the New England Conservatory and later Walter Piston at Harvard and Nadia Boulanger. Vincent taught at Western Kentucky State Teachers College for eight years, later succeeding Arnold Schoenberg as professor of composition at UCLA where he remained for two decades until his retirement.

Vincent’s output is not vast but he composed in nearly every discipline: two string quartets, a ballet, an opera, a film score (Red Cross) and several choral and orchestral works.

The American composer’s Symphony in D is his only work in the genre. Written for the Louisville Orchestra in 1954, it was revised two years later at the request of Eugene Ormandy, who performed and recorded it with his Philadelphia Orchestra.

Subtitled, “A Festival Piece in One Movement,” Vincent’s 19-minute symphony could have been written for Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra, so well does it suit this partnership. The work moves from an introspective opening section—the wind writing recalls Copland at times—to an energetic and optimistic main theme with great rhythmic vivacity.

Perhaps the middle section could have used some clarifying of inner voices Wednesday night. Yet few conductors have the kind of innate sympathy with American music of the 20th century than Kalmar. In this belated festival premiere, the Grant Park’s principal conductor led a vital reading that brought out the warmth of the lyrical pages and imbued the boisterous main theme with tremendous exuberance.

More music of Chopin closed the evening with a pair of real oddities: two orchestral arrangements of Chopin piano works by the young Igor Stravinsky.

Such arrangements are frowned upon in our more musicologically rigorous—or uptight—era. But Stravinsky being Stravinsky, his arrangements are quirkier and much more sophisticated than most, light years removed from, say, the soupiness of a 101 Strings album.

The transcription of the Nocturne in A-flat major (Op. 32, no.1) is subtle and cleverly crafted, Stravinsky distributing the theme amid several front-desk players. In the Grande Valse Brillante, Stravinsky takes a more subversive tack in his retooling, with mocking winds, prominent cymbal accents and swooping harp. Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra delivered lively and affectionate performances of both confections.

This weekend Carlos Kalmar conducts the Grant Park Orchestra in Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 4, Ives’ The Unanswered Question and Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante with cello soloist Pablo Ferrandez. Concerts are 6:30 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Pritzker Pavilion. gpmf.org

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