Flutes to the fore on a hot night with Grant Park Orchestra

Thu Jul 29, 2021 at 8:54 am

By Tim Sawyier

Anthony Trionfo was the soloist in Mercadante’s Flute Concerto No. 2 Wednesday night with the Grant Park Orchestra. Photo: Norman Timonera

In Wednesday’s sweltering evening heat, the Grant Park Orchestra gave its only outdoor performance this week before it will will retreat to the confines of the Harris Theater to avoid the Lollapalooza disruptions this weekend. The program saw the Grant Park players hitting their stride with director Carlos Kalmar after an uneven start to the summer following their protracted pandemic hiatus.

The evening opened with Debussy’s Prelude à L’après-midi d’un faune, the 1894 premiere of which Pierre Boulez famously claimed was the moment modern music was born. Kalmar opted for a particularly spacious approach to Debussy’s famed score, which effectively emphasized its static qualities though at times impeded an organic unfolding. There were excellent moments where time seemed to stand still, though more active passages—including the lush climax—felt overly restrained. Principal flute Mary Stolper leant her sonorous tone to the languid opening flute solo, and contributions from the other Grant Park principals were on the same high level.

More flute music followed with Anthony Trionfo as soloist in the Flute Concerto No. 2 in E Minor by Saverio Mercadante (1795-1870). In his prefatory remarks, Kalmar compared Mercadante’s fate to the portrayal of Salieri in the 1984 film Amadeus, emphasizing how seldom performed each Italian’s music is today. The work on offer, written when Mercadante was in his late teens, unfortunately did not make the best case for his rehabilitation. While the standard three movements are agreeable enough, their appeal is superficial and merely adequate as a solo vehicle.

Trionfo was a game and colorful protagonist. Garnering significant attention after winning first prize in the 2016 Young Concert Artists International Auditions, Trionfo is enjoying a burgeoning career as a soloist and inclusivity advocate. 

He has an assured technical command of his instrument, and a tone with a solid, silvery core.While some virtuosic moments in the opening Allegro maestoso felt insecure, with Trionfo rushing ahead of the all-string accompaniment, he and his colleagues eloquently sang the iterations of its lyrical second theme. 

There were more issues on hand in the Largo: a few flubbed notes and errant attacks from the soloist, little sense of dialogue between him and the supporting strings, pitch problems in the accompaniment, and errant ensemble in the closing bars. Particularly in the absence of compelling musical material, such elements need to be securely in place. 

The performance recovered well for the closing Rondò russo, with Trionfo lending snap and buoyancy to the dotted-rhythm theme and dispatching its show-off moments with flair.

The concert closed with another example of juvenilia in Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 2 in A Minor. Written when the composer was in his early twenties, the 23-minute work has an academic quality and clearly shows the young Frenchman working to find his compositional voice. The symphony is pristine and inventively orchestrated, though would probably have been forgotten completely if its composer had not gone on to do bigger and better things.

The opening Allegro marcato starts with a declamatory arpeggiated phrase in thirds that is elaborated over the course of the movement. This theme does not seem particularly amenable to melodic development, but Saint-Saëns gives it ingenious contrapuntal treatment, incisively rendered by Kalmar and colleagues on Wednesday. 

The ensuing Adagio is laconically brief, almost an entr’acte, with a halting string opening then joined by the English horn in a wistful melody, well sung by season substitute Margaret Butler and the strings. A jaunty Scherzo follows, littered with punchy off-beat accents that Kalmar forcefully emphasized. The final Prestissimo, a galloping romp in 6/8, brought the work and the performance to a boisterous conclusion.

The Grant Park Orchestra performs 6:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday in the Harris Theater, with a program of Haydn’s Symphony No. 8 in G Major (“Le Soir”), Caroline Shaw’s Entr’acte, and Rodion Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite. That program will also be livestreamed. grantparkmusicfestival.com/

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