Despite traditional rain, Grant Park Music Festival opens season brightly

Thu Jun 13, 2019 at 1:26 pm

By Hannah Edgar

Benjamin Beilman performed Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 to open the Grant Park Music Festival Wednesday night.

Kicking off its 85th season on Wednesday night, the Grant Park Music Festival hewed to its usual opening night traditions in more ways than one.

There were the requisite inaugural statements from a public official, delivered this year by newly minted mayor Lori Lightfoot. Carlos Kalmar—celebrating his 20th year as Grant Park’s music director—led the orchestra in the national anthem. And, as has been the case for nearly every festival opener over the last decade, a steady rain slicked up Millennium Park, sending patrons scrambling for their umbrellas or an overhang.

Despite the dismal weather, however, Wednesday also marked the debut of a new tradition in the making: utilizing the Pritzker Pavilion’s 40-foot LED screen. Besides opening night, the display will be mounted above the stage for the Independence Day Salute (July 4), the Wizard of Oz screening (July 10), and the Tale of Tsar Saltan suite concerts (August 14).

The screen will no doubt take some getting used to, for audience members and musicians alike,  as concertmaster Jeremy Black can attest. When he turned to tune the orchestra, he doubled back at the sight of his massive, high-def reflection towering over the orchestra. Whoa, indeed.

The merits and demerits of this new “multimedia experience” became manifest as the concert proceeded. Though some patrons in the seated section could be heard grumbling that the visuals were “distracting,” they offer a boon to festival attendees on the lawn, providing greater visibility to the stage performances.

However, the setup clearly needs some additional buffing. A promising if imperfect use of the screen for projected program notes peppered the audience with illustrated factoids about the piece during the live performanceBut each display was only projected for a few seconds before disappearing — blink and you missed it. 

Luckily, the camera work itself was generally better paced. The only downside was that it occasionally seemed to pick subjects at random, inadvertently capturing quotidian moments the musicians probably wished weren’t broadcast on a high-def screen — rushing to remove a forgotten mute, counting under their breath, or cleaning their instrument.

But the Grant Park Orchestra’s vivacious performance reiterated that for this summer series — offering top-flight soloists, adventurous repertoire, and an ensemble that plays with the sensitivity and thoroughness of a permanent legacy orchestra — it’s still all about the music.

Both salutatory and sufficiently obscure, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s Jubilation made a fitting overture to this year’s festival. Premiered in 1996 to celebrate the opening of the University of Georgia’s performing arts center, the short piece is bursting with orchestral color, if not structure. Strings play yearning lyric lines, with boisterous interpolations by the brass and winds. Though far from Zwilich’s best work, it’s a wry study in contrasts that played well to the festival orchestra’s palette of sounds. 

Kalmar then brought violinist Benjamin Beilman to the stage for Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1. Once a wunderkind from the western suburbs, Beilman is now nearly 30 and nicely navigating the professional transition that all soloists must confront after their prodigy years.

The Western Springs native plays with a limpid, even-keeled style that draws a straight line to the great mid-20-century virtuosos. But he can also rough it up when it wants to, as in his woodsy, coltish take on the second movement. 

Finger ever on the programming pulse, Kalmar tapped Beilman as a soloist for his Oregon Symphony two seasons ago, honoring an unofficial Grant Park tradition of reeling in former collaborators. As it often does, the two musicians’ familiarity paid off, with a rendition of Prokofiev’s opus so polished that one would have believed the musicians had rehearsed it for weeks.

That’s not to say that everything in this performance landed. With its sotto voce opening and finely etched orchestration, performing the concerto outdoors already presents challenges that were only exacerbated by Wednesday’s rainfall. It didn’t help that Beilman’s default sound was spiderweb-like: intricate, silvery, and graceful, but difficult to appreciate from a distance. 

Introspective moments of the concerto could have been better projected to compensate for a tricky acoustic and better blend with the orchestra. If it weren’t for the LED screen’s visual aid, patrons on the lawn unfamiliar with the work may have occasionally had difficulty plucking out Beilman’s line from the greater texture, especially in the first movement.

The screen relay also spotlighted the ensemble’s technical expertise of the orchestra, especially in the big orchestral showcase of the evening, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2, the “Little Russian.” The symphony’s moniker comes from its use of folksong from Ukraine, once called “Little Russia,” though it could also apply to its abbreviated duration: After a dissatisfied Tchaikovsky lopped five minutes of music off the piece, it became his shortest symphony.

Kalmar’s interpretive touch was smart but effortless: Each movement was carefully proportioned, but one got the sense that the trust between conductor and ensemble was such that the orchestra could chug along on its own, as it did in moments of the third movement. Strings shape-shifted from brassy brilliance to earthy lyric lines, bringing out the character of each folk theme.

Deserving of special plaudits are principal bassoonist Eric Hall and principal horn Jonathan Boen — Hall for his handsome solos in both the Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky, and Boen for his smooth, steady performance of the exposed opening solo in the Tchaikovsky. 

As the orchestra galloped to an exultant finish of the sort only Tchaikovsky could write, raucous applause erupted even before Kalmar cut off the orchestra with a galant sweep of his hand. The sentiment on both sides was loud and clear: Welcome back — we’re glad you’re here.

The Grant Park Music Festival continues 6:30 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Pritzker Pavilion. The weekend program includes Sibelius’s Karelia Overture, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8, Carl Vine’s Symphony No. 6, and the world premiere of Kareem Roustom’s Turn To The World, a Whitman Cantata.

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