Gluzman’s commanding Bernstein highlights Grant Park Orchestra’s Harris program

Sat Aug 03, 2019 at 11:23 am

By Tim Sawyier

Vadim Gluzman performed Bernstein’s “Serenade” with the Grant Park Orchestra Friday night at the Harris Theater. Photo: Norman Timonera

In one sense, the Grant Park Orchestra is the easiest group in town to hear: any Wednesday, Friday, or Saturday night over summer you can grab a free seat or a piece of lawn at Millennium Park and enjoy one of their concerts. 

In another sense, hearing the orchestra is an elusive experience: their outdoor performances are of necessity heavily amplified, so getting a realistic sense of the orchestra’s sonority is often impossible in their usual venue.

There are a handful of occasions each summer to hear the accomplished ensemble unplugged, in an actual acoustic. Such was the case Friday night at the Harris Theater, where the GPO escapes when Lollapalooza overtakes the Loop for the first weekend in August. This was a rare and welcome opportunity, though the results were mixed.

The concert opened with the first festival performance of Jennifer Higdon’s modern classic blue cathedral. It is hard to imagine the ten-minute tone poem’s ethereality coming across in the Pritzker Pavilion, but in the confines of the Harris the atmospheric elements emerged with crystalline clarity. Artistic director Carlos Kalmar paced an elegantly gradated performance that evoked a sense of cavernous Gothic space. Flutist Jennifer Lawson and clarinetist Dario Brignoli made eloquent solo contributions, and the latter’s final ascending phrase—which represents the composer’s departed brother’s lone heavenly ascent—was suitably poignant.

Following the Higdon, violin dynamo Vadim Gluzman took center stage as the soloist in Bernstein’s Serenade (After Plato’s Symposium) for Solo Violin, String Orchestra, Harp and Percussion from 1954. Gluzman is an expert on this somewhat esoteric work, having performed it consistently since he first added it to his repertoire twenty years ago. In a recent issue of the Bernstein-themed periodical “Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs,” Gluzman wrote, “I know every note of the score sideways and backwards and it’s part of my being, physically and emotionally.” 

His performance Friday made good on that bold claim, as it was clearly the result of someone who has lived with this complicated opus for decades.

Gluzman’s playing was commanding from top to bottom. The lyrical opening was evocatively sung, setting the tone for a piece that is in essence a meditation on love. The songlike “Aristophanes” movement was wistfully reflective, and Gluzman made short work of the manic technical demands of the ensuing “Erixymathus.” The seemingly endless lines of the “Agathon” Adagio spun effortlessly yet thoughtfully from Gluzman’s violin, and the jazzy finale was literally toe-tapping, capturing Alcibiades’ drunken interruption of the philosophers’ disquisitions in Plato’s text. Kalmar kept the proceedings unified and exact while allowing Gluzman ample freedom to shape his personal warhorse.

By way of an encore Gluzman offered the Gavotte en Rondeau from Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1006. Unfortunately, he did not remove his Bernstein hat to play solo Bach, and this extroverted rendition felt too aggressive, missing the more inward expression of the subtle music.

The second half began with another GPO premiere, this one of Ole Schmidt’s Hommage à Stravinsky for Wind Orchestra from 1985. This ten-minute work is not so much an homage as a pastiche, unabashedly lifting quotations from Stravinsky’s works—most notably Rite of Spring—and casting them in a motoric style evocative of the Russian composer’s neoclassical period. While there are piquant and colorful moments, hearing this work it is not hard to understand why Schmidt’s greatest legacy is for his conducting and pioneering recordings of his countryman Carl Nielsen’s symphonies, rather than for his compositional efforts.

The program concluded with Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 in D Major (“Prague”). Given the complexities of the other works on the program, it felt like this familiar fare got the short end of rehearsal time. Kalmar led a generalized performance with all-purpose tempi and dynamics, which was also bedeviled by fitful ensemble issues. While the principal winds made sensitive contributions and isolated moments captured the symphony’s expansive spirit, routine too often prevailed and the charms of this ingenious work were largely lost for it.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Harris Theater.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Gluzman’s commanding Bernstein highlights Grant Park Orchestra’s Harris program”

  1. Posted Aug 03, 2019 at 5:18 pm by Lynda Kalman

    I was privileged to attend as the guest of a friend. At the end of the first half just before intermission, I was conscious of the ROARS of approval coming from the audience! Obviously very well received.

    Thank you for your comprehensive and informative review. My only disagreement would be regarding Gluzman’s encore. I was enchanted!

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