Cleveland’s clarinetist impresses as new Baltimore maestro leads Grant Park concert

Thu Jul 21, 2022 at 11:02 am

By Tim Sawyier

Jonathon Heyward conducted the Grant Park Orchestra in music of Farrenc, Mozart and Dvořák Wednesday night. Photo: Norman Timonera

Thursday morning it was announced that Jonathon Heyward, 29, has been appointed music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the first person of color to hold the post in the orchestra’s 106-year history. 

Coincidentally, the South Carolina native happened to be in Chicago Wednesday night to make his Grant Park Orchestra debut, leading a program of Mozart and Dvořák. While the repertoire was largely familiar, there were two additional discoveries on tap beyond Baltimore’s new leader for the Pritzker Pavilion audience: composer Louise Farrenc, and Afendi Yusuf, the principal clarinet of the Cleveland Orchestra. 

The evening opened with Farrenc’s first orchestral work, the Overture No. 1, written in 1834 at the age 30. The brief curtain-raiser begins with a stately section of sweeping dotted rhythms, before segueing into a faster section redolent of Mendelssohn. It was striking to hear the 18th-century Frenchwoman writing in a distinctly Germanic vein, and the Overture certainly holds up compared to the early efforts of her male counterparts. Heyward seemed buried in the no-doubt unfamiliar score, however, and there is more character and charm to be mined in its pages than he found Wednesday night.

Yusuf was the soloist in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, the last major work completed by the composer. The Ethiopian-born soloist’s playing is unimpeachable, with a clear, liquid tone, pitch-perfect intonation, and effortless technique. He wore a full summer tuxedo in the sweltering Millennium Park heat, which did not appear to faze him in the least.

Afendi Yusuf performed Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto with the Grant Park Orchestra Wednesday night. Photo: Norman Timonera

The opening Allegro had all the grace one could hope for, with Heyward more at ease and attuned to the score in his accompaniment. Yusuf opted to slur many technical passages that other soloists articulate—a reasonable stylistic choice, even if the Pritzker amplification gave these bars a fitfully soupy impression.

Yusuf eloquently sustained the Adagio’s lyricism, capturing the music’s affecting, reflective quality. The closing Rondo felt coy and playful, even dancelike, capping a virtual clinic in contemporary wind playing. 

This exceptional outing left one eager to hear what Cleveland’s principal can do with his colleagues in the more congenial confines of Severance Hall.

The evening closed with Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8, and it is hard to imagine a more suitable open-air work. Heyward drew the audience into the performance, shaping the bardic opening theme for cellos and injecting vigor into the faster sections of the Allegro con brio.

An issue throughout the symphony was competing rock music coming from the nearby Cloud Gate area. This was most deleterious in the Adagio. One of Dvořák’s most inventive symphonic creations, the episodic movement captures a vast range of expression ranging from childlike innocence to cinematic ardor. It was impossible to enjoy its qualities, however, against the competing clangor.

The more boisterous closing two movements had a better chance. Heyward elicited sweet ensemble playing from the orchestra in the Allegretto grazioso. Mitchell Kuhn, the GPO’s new principal oboist, has gelled beautifully with his colleagues as his first summer with the orchestra has progressed. 

The closing Allegro had the requisite vitality—launched by a fleet flute solo from principal Mary Stolper, and with Heyward turning up the energy to bring the evening to a fiery close.

Markus Stenz leads the Grant Park Orchestra 6:30 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday. The program features Still’s Darker America, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestraand Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with Simon Trpčeski.

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2 Responses to “Cleveland’s clarinetist impresses as new Baltimore maestro leads Grant Park concert”

  1. Posted Jul 21, 2022 at 12:55 pm by Roger

    An excellent concert despite being marred by the competing “clangor of rock music.” Glad this issue was addressed in the review.

    I hope city officials read this, and address and correct the problem since ambient urban noise is distracting aplenty.

  2. Posted Jul 22, 2022 at 10:40 pm by Fiona

    It is true that Afendi Yusuf has impressive technique. Unfortunately, his sound was monotonous and his phrasing not in the least engaging. As a result, one if the most beautiful concerti ever written was a chore to sit through.

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