Pine, Grant Park Orchestra deliver a powerful local premiere for Childs concerto

Sat Jul 16, 2022 at 1:43 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Rachel Barton Pine was the soloist in the Chicago premiere of Billy Childs’ Violin Concerto No. 2 Friday night with the Grant Park Orchestra. Photo: Norman Timonera

There was no official announcement, but it was a de facto Rachel Barton Pine Week at the Grant Park Music Festival.

On Wednesday Pine took the Pritzker Pavilion stage in Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1—a last-minute change of program when the concert’s featured soloist, percussionist She-e Wu, tested positive for Covid. 

On Friday, she returned, as originally scheduled, for the Chicago premiere of Billy Childs’ Violin Concerto No. 2 conducted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya.

Pine and Childs have worked together before and they are ideal collaborators. Classically trained with prodigious technique and a rich lyrical tone, Pine is avidly interested in pushing the boundaries of classical repertoire. Childs, a multi-Grammy Award winner, is best known as a jazz artist, but he also is classically trained and interested in blurring the edges between genres. 

At Friday’s local debut the concerto proved a lavish showcase not only for Pine’s supple violin, but also for Childs’ deeply expressive orchestral writing.

In program notes, Childs explained that he wrote the Violin Concerto No. 2 in early 2020 during the darkest months of the Covid-19 pandemic. Thousands were dying of Covid around the world, and the U.S. was erupting with protests over the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Childs poured his dismay and anger into music that would become the concerto’s final section. He wrote the approximately 17-minute piece “backwards,” adding a more reflective second movement and finally composing the more joyful first movement last.

The miracle on Friday was how Pine’s solo violin became a sort of moral compass, giving even more profound resonance to the turmoil and search for solace that Childs’ concerto so deeply explored. The concerto’s opening movement, titled “Romance/Rejoice,” began quietly with a meditative melody in the low strings. Seamlessly expanding to the fuller orchestra, the music was restless but never dissonant. With Harth-Bedoya expertly balancing the musical textures, Pine’s solo violin arrived like a long-awaited prophetess, seizing the spotlight with her powerful, sweetly singing, melancholy song. The movement shifted eloquently between introspective and manic, and Pine’s violin fed the mania with extended, impossibly florid twists and turns. As if mesmerized, the orchestra rejoiced in a frenzy, brasses chasing each other in short, gleeful phrases. Near the end of the movement, however, as Pine’s solos became angular and sharp, we sensed anger beginning to infect the joy.

The second and third movements offered a profound portrait of a conflicted soul. In the slow middle movement titled “Remorse,” Pine’s violin floated above the orchestra like a reassuring voice. The orchestra’s mood was pensive, a solo woodwind rising and falling quietly, twirling briefly like an errant tendril pulling away from a lush vine. Brasses occasionally erupted, but the solo violin’s long melodies seemed to soothe them. Pine’s precise solo voice wandered, but we never felt she was lost.

Miguel Harth-Bedoya conducted the Grant Park Orchestra Friday night. Photo: Norman Timonera

This sense of the solo violin as a faithful, grounded soul made the agitated final movement even more compelling. Pine’s violin raced as frantically as the orchestra, driven by furious outbursts from the drums, whip-sawed by abrupt changes of direction in the winds and strings. The orchestra was like an angry, desperate mob, and their ire shook the foundations of the formerly confident, in-control soloist. When the racing temporarily stopped, and Pine’s violin emerged alone, her lyrical melodies functioned like long breaths, a way to slow down and momentarily control her anger and despair. Childs’ music powerfully reflected all the bafflement, fury, and soul-searching of the pandemic’s early months.

The Grant Park Orchestra, which co-commissioned Childs’ concerto with the Boulder Philharmonic, was supposed to perform the world premiere in summer 2020. But the pandemic cancelled that season, and Pine gave the world premiere with the Boulder orchestra this past February. 

In remarks from the stage before her encore, the first movement of Bach’s Partita No. 2 for Solo Violin, an exuberant Pine noted the two-year delay. But the concerto, she said, was “well worth the wait.” As the audience’s hearty applause affirmed, she was right.

The concert opened with La Madre de Agua, a brief, raucously colorful work by Colombian composer Victor Agudelo. 

The evening closed with a smoothly flowing performance of Beethoven Symphony No. 3. Harth-Bedoya emphasized propulsive, forward movement in this “Eroica,” and resisted the temptation to turn Beethoven’s short, emphatic motifs into overly dramatic, staccato fits and starts. The Grant Park brass section, superb throughout the evening, sounded both glowing and noble in the symphony’s finale.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

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