Memorable Brahms and lively Garrop premiere spark Grant Park concert

Sat Jun 22, 2019 at 12:57 pm

By Hannah Edgar

Augustin Hadelich performed Brahms’ Violin Concerto with the Grant Park Orchestra Friday night;. Photo: Norman Timonera

The Grant Park Music Festival typically follows the tripartite formula of symphony orchestra concerts: a short, overture-like piece first, a solo concerto, then wrapping up with a multi-movement symphonic work in the second half.

On Friday night, audience members might have already guessed they were in for something special when the festival slated soloist Augustin Hadelich to fill the final spot on the program, with Brahms’ Violin Concerto. The shuffled order of the program, led by Carlos Kalmar, also served to incentivize crowds to stay through a largely unfamiliar first half — a world premiere by Chicago composer Stacy Garrop and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1 — despite another night of frigid lakefront temperatures.

Commissioned by Grant Park, Garrop’s Shiva Dances follows in the footsteps of generations of composers who have taken inspiration from rāgas—rhythmic and tonal patterns that form the foundational basis of Indian classical music. According to Garrop, she was inspired to write the piece after seeing a bronze statue of Nataraja, a dancing form of the Hindu god Shiva.

Nataraja’s dance represents cosmic cycles of life, death, and rebirth, and Garrop adheres to the same sequence in her piece, using North Indian rāgas to represent Shiva’s repose, his destructive dance, and the creation of a new universe in its wake. 

Metallic clusters in the strings and the low growl of a contrabassoon create an atmospheric, elemental opening, strings eventually weaving stepwise lines around the din. Bongos introduce the beginning of Shiva’s dance, whirling itself into an intense climax punctuated by a tam-tam hit. The rest of the piece is falling action, or, as the note describes, the “sun ris[ing] on the new universe” — celeste and harp play a twinkling ostinato over a lyric piccolo solo.

But, much like the composers before her, Garrop isn’t really using genuine rāgas in Shiva Dances. As she states in her program notes, Garrop opted for Western tunings and conceived the rāgas as “scales” in order to render the work. Call it Hindustani music as processed through the Western musical tradition.

Relaying an entire creation story in eight minutes is a tall order, and Shiva Dances never really conveys the immensity of its subject matter. There’s little of the awed reverence Garrop likely intended to evoke and with its reliance on Westernized South Asian tropes, much of Shiva Dances sounds like one of John Williams’ lesser Indiana Jones scores. Still, the premiere was given  a rousing sendoff by Kalmar and the orchestra and earned an enthusiastic reception in the pavilion.

Where Shiva Dances followed a carefully calibrated arc, Shostakovich’s youthful symphony is a masterclass in unpredictability. A riotous march of contrasting ideas and characters, the symphony suffers from a general sense of anticlimax but is compositionally radical to its core, even more so than many of the composer’s later symphonies. At 18, Shostakovich is already completely, potently, and assuredly himself.

The Grant Park Orchestra did justice to this somewhat neglected opus in all its biting, brooding glory. Sometimes intonation could be shaky, likely because of the chill, but that didn’t stop a number of first-desk players from flaunting their solo chops. Principal cellist Walter Haman especially impressed with his keening solo opening in the fourth movement, while pianist Andrea Swan nimbly tossed off the frantic, dance-hall like piano solos in the second movement and beyond.

The festival lost folks to the cold before the Brahms, which was a shame. Those who left would have missed an inspired interpretation by Augustin Hadelich not to be soon forgotten.

After Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra’s broad-shouldered introduction, Hadelich entered as though spinning his own creation story — creating it out of something nebulous, willing chaos into order. It set the tone for a bardic approach to the whole concerto: an aria-like second movement, with its own ardent recitatives, and a third movement at turns triumphant and reverent.

Hadelich plays this warhorse as though he’s always finding new things to say, sometimes literally. As has become his standard, he performed his own cadenza, a glittering soliloquy stringing together a number of themes from the first movement. His rubati felt spontaneous, but wherever he moved, the Grant Park Orchestra followed — a testament to Kalmar’s intuition on the podium. When Hadelich opted to go more uptempo in the skipping third movement, playing on the front end of the beat, Kalmar kept the orchestra tightly in his orbit with effective, minimalist gestures.

Ever generous and seemingly unfazed by the chill, Hadelich returned to the stage for an encore: a silvery and soulful reading of Paganini’s Caprice No. 24, rewarded with a well-deserved standing ovation.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Memorable Brahms and lively Garrop premiere spark Grant Park concert”

  1. Posted Jun 23, 2019 at 9:36 am by Susan Frazier

    I attended both concerts so I could see Augustin while he was here. What a thrill to hear him play. He is one-of-a-kind. I hope it’s not long before he comes back to Orchestra Hall. Thank you, Grant Park!

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