Villaume leads a winning program with Grant Park Orchestra

Thu Jul 18, 2019 at 10:58 am

By John Y. Lawrence

Yolanda Kondonassis performed Ginastera’s Harp Concerto with the Grant Park Orchestra Wednesday night. Photo: Norman Timonera

The weather Wednesday night at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion at the Grant Park Festival was, yet again, a true test of concertgoers’ dedication.

At curtain time an unexpected fierce downpour soaked anyone with the misfortune to be umbrella-less and unshielded by the overhang. (An overzealous usher blocked audience members in the center-left aisle from moving up to take shelter as well.) The concert was delayed by about twenty minutes, and then began and continued without incident after the rain ceased.

Not everyone toughed it out, but those that did were treated to a winning program from conductor Emmanuel Villaume and the Grant Park Orchestra—two French works by Ravel and Bizet, and the Harp Concerto of Argentinian modernist Alberto Ginastera, with Yolonda Kondonassis as soloist.

The opening of the Mother Goose Suite, which led off the rain-delayed evening, was a bit obscured by the sounds of rain remnants dripping off the pavilion and the chatter of the audience negotiating their seats. But once all distractions faded, what was left was an immaculately balanced performance, with every melodic line bright and clean.

This being a mostly French concert, the orchestra’s winds had much to do throughout the evening, and they were in consistently fine form. The highlights of the suite were a rhythmically alert and frisky rendition of “Laideronette, Empress of the Pagodas,” and a perfectly lilting portrayal of Beauty in “Conversation of Beauty and the Beast.”

The Ginastera that followed is one of the two great 20th-century concertos for the instrument (the other being that by Reinhold Glière). The work was written when its composer was shedding his earlier folk-influenced style for a more modern “Neo-Expressionist” style— evident in some of the piece’s spiky dissonances and violent outbursts.

What separates Ginastera’s concerto from those that came before is that it frees the harp from its unfortunate stereotype as an instrument capable of conjuring elegant salons and magical dream-worlds, but little else. Ginastera makes the instrument a more versatile, even dramatic solo protagonist.

Dramatic is the right word for Kondonassis’s performance. In the slow movement especially, the celebrated harpist played with extreme dynamic contrasts—both between and within phrases—more extreme perhaps than Ginastera’s score suggests. She seemed to make the instrument roar, whisper, wail. One almost forgot that the harp was being plucked.

On other instruments, this might have seemed overwrought. But in the context of this concerto, it served well as a testament to both the instrument’s underestimated expressive latitude and Kondonassis’s command over it.

One doesn’t associate fury with a harp either. But Villaume and the Grant Park Orchestra brought an almost Stravinskian ferocity to the finale, and Kondonassis matched them, crash for crash.

Emmanuel Villaume conducted the Grant Park Orchestra Wednesday night. Photo: Norman Timonera

The evening concluded with Bizet’s Symphony No. 1. The symphony was a student piece, written when the composer was 17, and never published in his lifetime. The work  is not afflicted with any pretensions to profundity–it’s just rollicking good fun.

Villaume kept that perspective in the the three fast movements. The unwelcome exception was some over-interpreting in the slow movement.

The movement’s chief melody is a sinuous, almost mock-Oriental solo for oboe. Villaume had the bizarre idea of conducting this at a crawl at the opening, then taking the rest of the movement at a more sensible clip, including the return of the oboe melody. Acting principal Marty Hebert took advantage of this extra time in the opening by adding as many ear-catching phrasing nuances as possible. But these weren’t enough to relieve the lethargic tempo.

The rest of the symphony went splendidly, however. Besides the ample energy that Villaume brought, his other great virtue was again his sense of balance. Even in the bustle of the whirlwind finale, the woodwinds were crisp, the pizzicatos distinct, and the colors of Bizet’s orchestration shined through.

The Grant Park Chorus performs a program of music by women composers 7 p.m. Thursday at the Columbus Park Refectory.

Posted in Performances

4 Responses to “Villaume leads a winning program with Grant Park Orchestra”

  1. Posted Jul 18, 2019 at 3:13 pm by Daniel Conn

    The Mother Goose Suite I find is a moving work and came across even better in the live performance than in any recording I have heard of it. I happen to have a recording of solo harp music played by Yolanda Kondonassis, but have never heard the Ginastera before. Despite the rain pour that delayed the concert, it was worth the wait, as I was greatly impressed with the concerto and the performance. I have never heard such precise and high level of virtuoso playing on the harp, which is an under-appreciated instrument. I was glad to learn that Kondonassis is working with certain composers to commission new works for the instrument and has also expanded the musical and technical range of harp playing.

    The Grant Park Orchestra to my ears has not fully perfected its French horn section, as I believe there was a flubbed passage for horn in the second movement of the Symphony in C by Biezt. Other than that, I thought it was a more authentically French interpretation than the orchestra gave of the same symphony in a previous performance with their music director conducting. All in all, a most enjoyable and impressive concert.

  2. Posted Jul 20, 2019 at 8:34 am by heatherq

    The internet is full of armchair critics, and your ability to notice one chipped eighth note coming from the horn section is astonishing. (Except it wasn’t during the second movement.) Professional musicians sometimes miss notes during live concerts, especially when playing outdoors with unpredictable weather changes and chattering audiences, ambulance sirens, and other noises. If you’re looking for perfection, stay home and enjoy one of your recordings.

  3. Posted Jul 23, 2019 at 6:25 pm by Daniel Cohn

    The late Claudia Cassidy believed in high standards in musical performance. One of the functions of music criticism — and this is a music review site — is to promote high standards of performance. Musicians themselves are taught not to accept the status quo but to always strive for new musical insights and a closer representation of the composer’s intentions.

    You shouldn’t be telling someone what to do. I hope that the Grant Park Music Festival will be able to continue with the high level of music-making that has been accomplished for many more years.

  4. Posted Jul 24, 2019 at 10:57 am by Geo.

    Other candidates for notable 20th-century harp concertos are:
    (a) William Alwyn: ‘Lyra Angelica’
    (b) Joaquin Rodrigo: ‘Concierto Serenata’
    There’s definitely more than 2 out there.

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