Yang’s mesmerizing Grieg highlights Grant Park Orchestra’s classical return

Thu Jul 08, 2021 at 10:37 am

By Tim Sawyier

Joyce Yang performed Grieg’s Piano Concerto with the Grant Park Orchestra Wednesday night. Photo: Norman Timonera

Over the July 4th weekend the Grant Park Music Festival returned to the stage of the Pritzker Pavilion for the first time in 22 months, with two performances of an “Independence Day Salute” of patriotic selections. 

On Wednesday evening the Grant Park Orchestra offered its first traditional orchestral program in almost two years, with longtime artistic director and principal conductor Carlos Kalmar at the helm. While there was evidence that the ensemble is still finding its footing after the long hiatus, there was an undeniable thrill in the air with the return of this Chicago musical tradition.

The bulk of Wednesday’s program was devoted to the Grieg Piano Concerto with soloist Joyce Yang. The South Korean virtuoso grabbed the spotlight with the work’s famous descending opening statement, and lyrically spun the Allegro molto moderato’s rhapsodic second theme. Her rendition of the first movement cadenza was mesmerizing, even competing with emergency sirens on Lake Shore Drive. Yang’s playing in the central Adagio had a regal bearing, and she brought fire to the jaunty closing Allegro moderato molto e marcato. In this last movement a limpid flute solo from principal Mary Stolper made an eloquent transition to the contrasting reflective episode.

The piano did not benefit from the Pavilion’s steely amplification, losing much of its sonority, particularly in the upper registers. Even with this limitation, Yang impressively mined a variety of shadings that lifted her reading of the Norwegian warhorse well above the routine. As an encore she offered a sensitive rendition of Chopin’s Andante Spianato tranquillo (from the Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante in E-flat Major, Op. 22), which highlighted the unexpected affinity between the Polish-French Chopin and Grieg.

Kalmar’s accompaniment was serviceable, but here as throughout the evening bedeviled by poor ensemble. The strings were ragged in the coda of the Grieg, and the final chords were not close to being together. Part of this may have been attributable to the orchestra’s COVID protocols—masked string players (along with Kalmar and Yang), winds far apart at the back of the stage, and the brass in the rafters. It is unclear whose guidelines the outdoor festival is heeding at this point in Illinois’ reopening, but given some of the issues it is hard to imagine these measures did not affect the performance to some degree.

The concert opened with the Short Piece by Julia Perry. This eight-minute work from the 20th-century African American composer begins with a strident, driving opening, that segues via wandering woodwind soli to several characterful episodes. Subdued string solos near the end give way to a final build and aggressive closing gesture. In his trademark opening remarks, Kalmar referred to Perry’s neo-classical writing as “prickly” and with “her own point of view,” which was evident in Wednesday’s performance. The work felt finely crafted, well-orchestrated, with genuine surprises that would benefit from further hearings. Let us hope for more opportunities to hear from this prolific and intriguing composer.

Bizet’s Suite No. 1 from L’Arlésienne followed the Perry. Kalmar led an energetic reading of the Ouverture, though the ensuing Minuetto suffered from the string ensemble lapses that would trouble the Grieg. The Adagietto though felt warm and sonorous, and the closing Carillon had the requisite expansive, chiming quality, if again isolated chords were approximate at best.

The performance closed with Rossini’s inescapable Overture to William Tell. Principal cello Walter Haman was excellent with his colleagues in the opening chorale, and the GPO trombone section brought stentorian force to the tempestuous section that follows. Margaret Butler offered the English horn solo with an inviting quality, adorned with avian filigree from flutist Stolper. The closing theme, so familiar as the theme music to The Lone Ranger, had abundant esprit despite fitfully unconvincing ensemble.

As Kalmar and colleagues built energy to closing bars, cries started coming from the lawn behind the Pavilion. Initially it seemed as though the lawn patrons’ enthusiasm for a live Rossini crescendo simply could not be contained, but the truth soon became clear—the rains that had held off for the whole evening had arrived in the closing moments of the concert, bringing it to a wet and raucous conclusion as patrons ran for cover.

Carlos Kalmar leads the Grant Park Orchestra in Vivaldi’s Gloria, Barber’s Adagio for Strings, and Brahms’ Symphony No. 3, 6:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. grantparkmusicfestival.com/

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Yang’s mesmerizing Grieg highlights Grant Park Orchestra’s classical return”

  1. Posted Jul 10, 2021 at 10:05 am by paulaapprdvg htt

    Really appreciate the descriptive review of a lovely evening of music.

    Think we all realize this was the orchestra’s first performance of the season – and the program included pieces unfamiliar to many/most of both audience and musicians. Therefore they weren’t exactly playing as a cohesive unit yet.

    I think we forget that even though we are well in to July and in prior years that meant we were in week four and five of rehearsals and performances, these musicians have had precious little time to prepare.
    I believe we’ll hear consistent improvement as the weeks fly by!

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