Kalmar tests positive for Covid, bows out; Alltop capably steps in with GPO 

Thu Jun 23, 2022 at 10:00 am

By Tim Sawyier

The ZOFO piano duo (Eva-Maria Zimmermann and Keisuke Nakagoshi) performed Wednesday night at the Grant Park Music Festival. Photo: Keith Saunders

Covid protocols continue to snarl the downtown orchestral scene.

Last week Riccardo Muti had to withdraw from Chicago Symphony Orchestra performances featuring violinist Anne Sophie-Mutter after a positive test for the virus. 

On Wednesday Grant Park Orchestra principal conductor Carlos Kalmar tested positive following the afternoon rehearsal, and was compelled to hand off that evening’s performance on less than four hours’ notice.

According to a pre-concert announcement from Grant Park Music Festival president and CEO Paul Winberg, Kalmar is “feeling well.”

This meant some scrambling, and it is fortunate Chicago has a deep enough pool of talent that someone of Stephen Alltop’s caliber happened to be available to step in for the evening (and was apparently near his cellphone).

The complete absence of rehearsal time for Alltop necessitated some retooling of the program. Anna Clyne’s This Midnight Hour was jettisoned, as was the world premiere of Carl Vine’s Zofomorphosis with the piano duo ZOFO. 

The  revised program offered Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, and Vine’s Sonata for Piano Four Hands (also with ZOFO, sans orchestra). The scheduled Schubert “Unfinished” Symphony remained unchanged.

Stephen Alltop conducted the Grant Park Orchestra on Wednesday.

Music director of the Apollo Chorus, as well as orchestras in Elmhurst and Champaign, Alltop was a game eleventh-hour substitute. (He led the Chicago premiere of Stacy Garrop’s oratorio Terra Nostra just last week.)

While it could not be said Alltop plumbed any new depths in the canonical fare he led—perfectly understandable given the circumstances—the show very much went on without obvious nerves or catastrophe. Alltop and the GPO were consummate professionals making the best of a bad situation.

Throughout Alltop sensibly opted for a demonstrative, assertive approach that kept things on the rails. The presumably sight-read Egmont Overture went off without a hitch, with Alltop avoiding ensemble issues in the score’s potential problem spots.

The Schubert symphony was less convincing. It is extremely difficult to pull off such subtle, intimate music amid the unavoidable urban din downtown. There was a quiet moment in the coda of the Allegro moderato where the orchestra was simultaneously competing with a helicopter, sirens, and a jangling cellphone. Always of interest in Schubert are his subtle variations in harmony and orchestration, and these failed to project sufficiently Wednesday night.

The Andante con moto did afford a look at the Grant Park Orchestra’s new principal oboe, Mitchell Kuhn. A Juilliard grad, Kuhn possesses keen musical instincts and a refined timbre, though he sounded undersized among his colleagues Wednesday. This may have been due to the frequently problematic amplification at Pritzker Pavilion, and it will be interesting to see how he gels with the wind section as the summer progresses.

Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet came off best, and is the kind of work best suited to the Millennium Park environment. Alltop captured the atmospheric distance of the opening wind chorale, and the work’s exceptional familiarity meant the string sections had the knottier passages well enough under their fingers. The lush love theme had all the cinematic sweep one could expect, and the closing apotheosis felt shining and reverent.

Pianists Eva-Maria Zimmermann and Keisuke Nakagoshi make up the piano duo ZOFO (an acronym of “20-Finger Orchestra,” with “20” rendered as “ZO”). In lieu of their scheduled Vine world premiere, written for them, they offered the Australian composer’s Sonata for Piano Four Hands, a twenty-minute opus in five movements. which the duo played at the festival on Sunday.

It has been joked that it is safe to observe of any music written in the last hundred years, “I hear the influence of Debussy,” but such was particularly the case with the Vine. One could add Ravel and Prokofiev to the list of obvious forerunners. While Zimmerman and Nakagoshi were clearly committed to the performance, the amplified setting elided whatever nuances are to be mined in the score, and an overall impression of monochrome prevailed. The Sonata’s slow, darkly creeping waltz was perhaps its most evocative moment, and the reflective “Meditation” offered some repose, but it did not feel like Vine’s score had much new to say. The pianists might be forgiven for a lack of fervor too, given the last-minute nixing of their turn in front of the orchestra.

The Grant Park Orchestra performs 6:30 p.m. Friday. David Danzmayr conducts a revised program with Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 and the Korngold Violin Concerto with soloist Simone Lamsma. grantparkmusicfestival.com/

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