Brabbins, Grant Park Orchestra master heat, humidity, and helicopters with rewarding program

Sat Jul 20, 2019 at 12:36 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Martyn Brabbins conducted the Grant Park Orchestra Friday night at the Pritzker Pavilion. Photo: Norman Timonera

The summer’s weather has become a dominant factor at the Grant Park Music Festival. Nearly every concert in Millennium Park has been bedeviled by heavy rains since the ten-week festival opened last month.

On Friday night it was not rain but extreme heat that Grant Park Orchestra musicians and audience members had to deal with. The temperature at curtain time was 94 with the intense humidity pushing the heat index well into the 100s. 

The opening work, James MacMillan’s Stomp (with Fate and Elvira) was jettisoned to avoid prolonging the agony—as well as adhering to the stringent musicians’ union regulations for shortened programs on extreme weather nights.

Still, the light breeze off of Lake Michigan provided some relief and by the time of the second half the atmosphere was almost pleasant.

As it turned out, it wasn’t the weather that was the greatest challenge to Friday’s music-making but man-made folly and ineptitude. A pair of local television helicopters (CBS and Fox) made several low and noisy passes directly over the Pritzker Pavilion during the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3, which opened the evening. A festival spokesperson said the helicopters were flying over the lakefront to cover a cut gas line (sliced by a hapless contractor hammering tent spikes for the upcoming Lollapalooza). But that incident was way south by Balbo, so why repeatedly buzz a classical concert in Millennium Park two miles north? Thanks for almost ruining the evening’s concert, guys.

Fortunately the poise and professionalism of conductor Martyn Brabbins, pianist Stephen Hough and the Grant Park Orchestra kept the focus on the music—though with the low-flying choppers, wailing sirens and deafening firetruck horns it was close at times.

Hough is one of the most spontaneous of musicians, a superb artist who invariably brings nervy freshness to his performances. Still, it was hard to avoid the feeling that the English pianist’s playing was a bit contained Friday night due to conditions—cautious in the first cadenza and seemingly focused on blocking out the myriad distractions and keeping his fingers from slipping off the keys in the high humidity.

Stephen Hough performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 Friday night. Photo: Norman Timonera

If the result was a Beethoven Third Concerto that looked back to the classical period rather than the romantic era it was helping to usher in, Hough’s admirable performance was none the worse for that. The soloist manifested impressive grace under pressure, playing with consistent polish and accuracy even with the unhelpful distractions.  

There was a nice blend of grace and drama in the opening movement and Hough brought wry wit and light-hearted spirits to the finale. With the helicopters finally in abeyance, the pianist was able to explore a degree of rapt interior expression in the Largo. Brabbins drew equally sensitive playing from the strings, which maintained impressive intonation even with the wilting heat.

Brabbins’ sturdy vigor was worlds apart from Carlos Kalmar’s more punchy Beethoven style, but proved effective and in synch with Hough’s tempered approach.

Music director of English National Opera, Brabbins does not have a high profile stateside. But collectors will be familiar with his name due to his many fine recordings on the Chandos and Hyperion labels, often of rarely explored repertory.

The English conductor’s Chicago debut proved a notable success, with an inspired performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ A London Symphony.

One can take this affectionate musical portrait as a day-in-the-life snapshot of London in the Edwardian era, as outlined in Albert Coates’ 1920 description, reprinted in the program. Yet while acknowledging the score’s programmatic elements, the Murray’s Handbook for Travellers approach is a bit twee and simplistic. VW’s second symphony is a grander, deeper and darker work than the picturesque scenario suggests.

Brabbins led a layered and organic performance of his compatriot’s work that brought out the piquant elements and brilliance while underlining the thematic unity and symphonic ballast. The hushed shimmering mystery of the opening bars—said to reflect dawn on the Thames—made even more jarring the ensuing dissonant crash that heralds the urban bustle. The city’s brash exuberance was vibrantly put across in the opening movement, yet Brabbins also emphasized the lyrical long line, as with Jeremy Black’s violin solo in the hymn-like section.

There was a nice, inevitable flow to this performance and one felt that Brabbins knew where he was going in every bar. Nothing was flashy or merely superficial yet every element registered fully and effectively under the conductor’s easy command. 

This was especially true in the darker nocturnal currents of the second movement. Several front desk players lent evocative solos—violist Terri Van Valkinburgh especially—and Brabbins built the music to a rich, resplendent climax.

The cross-pollination with Edward Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture—written a decade earlier— is unmistakeable in the Scherzo, where Brabbins and the players brought out the Cockney swagger of the central march. 

The finale provided a real sense of coming full circle. The English quality of the main theme was vital and idiomatic, and the climax weighty and powerful. The quiet final section was most effectively rendered, with the harp’s magical evocation of the Big Ben chimes, and the return to the night music of the opening was genuinely moving in the coda’s fading glow.

The Grant Park Orchestra members were at their considerable finest across all sections in this performance, with only isolated moments where the weather seemed to create problems.

This was a most auspicious debut by Martyn Brabbins, and one hopes he will be invited back, hopefully under less trying circumstances.

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

Posted in Performances

3 Responses to “Brabbins, Grant Park Orchestra master heat, humidity, and helicopters with rewarding program”

  1. Posted Jul 20, 2019 at 2:16 pm by Peter DG

    That’s strange. I tuned in to this concert on the radio, a bit late, and during the first half didn’t hear any of the disturbances you mention. But the second half was full of the usual police sirens and extraneous noise. I assumed those huge glass stage doors were closed for the first half.

    Why go downtown for the concert? You get a cleaner sound on the radio. Even sitting in the first row you get an electronic transcription rather than the real sound of the instruments. For me the only reason to go down would be to party on the lawn.

  2. Posted Jul 23, 2019 at 7:31 am by Musician

    Agreed that the WFMT mix is vastly superior to what is heard through the sound system at Pritzker Pavilion. This has a been a problem for years and unfortunately seems like it won’t be going away anytime soon.

    Levels should be set and left alone. Constant dial riding/level adjustments (often in the middle of solos) make for distracting performances and ruin all of the hard work the orchestra does with conductors. Then again, I guess the sound guy must know best!

  3. Posted Jul 23, 2019 at 9:58 am by Odradek

    I went on Saturday. Thankfully none of the problems listed in this review were present. As for “why go downtown,” live music has its own unique charms which I can’t get by listening on the radio.

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