“Animals” far too tame at Grant Park’s Family Night

Thu Aug 12, 2021 at 10:51 am

By John Y. Lawrence

Norman Huynh conducted the Grant Park Orchestra in music of Offenbach, Grieg and Saint-Saëns Wednesday night.

Wednesday night was Family Night at Millennium Park, as conductor Norman Huynh and the Grant Park Festival Orchestra served up friendly fare for children young and old.

The most inspired programming choice was beginning the evening with Offenbach’s Overture to Orpheus in the Underworld. Hearing the Can-Can in its original form sets up the joke for its slow-motion performance as the tortoises in the centerpiece of the concert, Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals.

The Overture received by far the finest performance of the evening, with wide contrasts of tempo and dynamics. Concertmaster Jeremy Black floated a tender rendition of the central violin solo and Huynh did an excellent job pacing the ensuing waltz section.

In keeping with the concert’s youthful theme, the pianists for Carnival were Ashley Kim (who has just graduated high school) and Colin Song (who is still in college).

For the benefit of the children in attendance, each movement was prefaced by an explanatory poem, a tradition dating back at least to Ogden Nash. The twist was that these whimsical poems—featuring elephants in tutus and pianos running on their legs—were written by students, 2nd grade and up, as part of the Chicago Poetry Center.

The poems were read by 9th graders Gabriel Alvarez and Chloe Wong and 7th grader Layla Abdullah, the last of whom provided particularly lively delivery.

Additionally, footage of the animals was projected on the Pritzker Pavilion screen to accompany each movement. This was a good idea, but some of the footage was very oddly selected. If the “Wild Asses” and “Kangaroo” movements depict sprinting and hopping respectively, as the poems reinforced, why show these animals barely moving?

Although it is often performed by full orchestras, Carnival of the Animals was originally written for a large chamber ensemble and the best performances maintain that intimate give-and-take.

Unfortunately, the performance by Huynh and the Grant Park Orchestra was under-characterized and ill-coordinated. The “Royal March of the Lions” proved effectively pompous. But “Hens and Roosters” didn’t have properly chattering articulation, “Tortoises” was too fast to get the joke across, and “Aviary” was a blurry mess.

The young pianists’ performances were technically secure but needed seasoning and the prevailing blandness missed some of the music’s essential playfulness. Kim and Song were on better footing when they didn’t have to interact with the orchestra at large, such as in the nicely timed hopping in “Kangaroos.”

The concert concluded with both of Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suites. No explanation was given for this music, however (not even a mention of trolls). Surely children who required poetry to appreciate the Saint-Saëns should have been given some notion of what this 30+ minutes of uninterrupted music represents?

Every movement was interpretively well-conceived apart from “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” which began too loudly to allow for proper buildup. Particularly fine were two of the less-celebrated movement—“Abduction of the Bride” and “Arabian Dance.” In the latter, Huynh and the orchestra brought out the lilt of the dance rhythms and the color of the orchestration.

Unfortunately, the playing was even sloppier than in Carnival. Things as simple as woodwind entries and triangle hits were misaligned.

The strongest solo work of the night was from clarinetist Dario Brignoli, including a highly inflected cadenza in the Overture and a suitably bouncy middle section in Carnival’s “Fossils.”

The best moments of the concert showed that Huynh is capable of bringing energetic flair to familiar classics, but this young conductor clearly needs to assert himself more and et a tighter grip on the musicians.

Lawrence Loh conducts the Grant Park Orchestra with guest vocal artists for an evening of “Classic Broadway” 6:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday in the Pritzker Pavilion. grantparkmusicfestival.com

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One Response to ““Animals” far too tame at Grant Park’s Family Night”

  1. Posted Sep 01, 2021 at 6:58 pm by Harold Kupper

    Yeah, “a tighter grip on the musicians” is clearly the answer to any interpretive deficit or lack of skill on the part of the conductor.

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