Kalmar, Tetzlaff and Grant Park Chorus deliver a summer highlight with Shostakovich, Vaughan Williams

Sat Aug 13, 2022 at 1:33 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Christian Tetzlaff performed Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra Friday night. Photo: Norman Timonera

One rarely appreciates the great things in life at the time. Only after they have passed into the receding distance, does one realize their excellence and significance.

So, on the penultimate weekend of this year’s Grant Park Music Festival, let’s take a moment to acknowledge the golden era of classical music-making that Carlos Kalmar, Christopher Bell and the Grant Park Orchestra & Chorus have been bringing to Chicago audiences over the past two decades. No other Chicago classical organization has come close to equalling the festival’s deft programming—artfully balancing rarities and new music with repertoire favorites—or the consistently successful results regularly served up in a tight ten-week summer season.

Friday night’s unlikely pairing of a Shostakovich concerto and choral work by Ralph Vaughan Williams delivered the finest lakefront concert of the summer and a highlight of the musical year. There is one repeat on Saturday night—cancel your plans and go.

Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his Violin Concerto No. 1 in 1948 but famously put it in a drawer until a future time when he hoped that Stalin’s cultural commissars would take their foot off his neck.  The work had to wait seven years until after the communist dictator’s death to receive its premiere in 1955 with David Oistrakh as soloist.

The result is the best of Shostakovich’s six concertos, and one of his finest accomplishments, a work that begins in the deepest gloom and ends in blazing triumph.

In his opening remarks, Kalmar mentioned that while the concerto is seen as Shostakovich’s personal statement against Stalinist repression, it also stands as an eternal symbol of artistic freedom against other oppressive regimes. True, of course, and not just against authoritarian governments; today’s high-tech oligarchs are all too eager to suppress free speech when it goes against the interests of whatever politicians they are currently currying favor with.

Against its broader historic and political canvas, Shostakovich’s concerto is also a masterful musical achievement, alternating bleak, brooding music with passages of blinding virtuosity, culminating in what is, for many, the most sheerly exhilarating finale of all violin concertos.

If may often be true that the greatest works are better than they can ever be played. But Christian Tetzlaff’s mesmerizing performance Friday night with the Grant Park Orchestra seemed to deliver every element of Shostakovich’s fascinating, multifaceted work.

Perhaps the initial solo bars of the opening Nocturne could have been more hushed but the violinist was soon in the zone. Tetzlaff played this searching music with a spare, at times shell-shocked, expression, plumbing a deep vein of searching rumination. The galumphing Scherzo provided due contrast with Tetzlaf digging into the spiky accents with incisive bite, and Kalmar whipping up frenzied energy in the faster second theme.

The Passacaglia is the heart of the work and here Tetzlaff was supreme. From the withdrawn opening phrases, he explored the bleak depths of this dark, interior music with a dusky viola-like tone, and widely terraced range of dynamics. The soloist’s hushed, concentrated expression richly conveyed the sense of a protagonist searching for a way out of the darkness.

That drama reaches its apex in the cadenza that bridges the slow movement with the finale. For once, this extended solo conflict really felt like the life-and-death struggle it was meant to be. Following the increasingly complex and agitated solo bursts, the violinist eventually emerges with an assertive statement of the finale’s main theme, centered on the composer’s DSCH musical motif, which launches the final movement.

The Burlesca was exhilarating, not just for the solo fireworks but for conveying a cumulative sense of energized confidence and release over the dark forces, with Tetzlaff and Kalmar ratcheting up the tempo and acceleration to a triumphant coda. The support of Kalmar and the GPO was on the same committed level as their virtuosic soloist.

The well-deserved cheers and standing ovation brought Tetzlaff back out for an encore. The violinist’s poised performance of the Sarabande from Bach’s Solo Partita No. 2 in D minor provided cooling balm after the concerto’s frenzied coda.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Dona nobis pacem is less well known today than the work it inspired a quarter-century later—Britten’s War Requiem. Written in 1936 at a time of Great War shadows and a new war looming, Dona nobis pacem is, sadly, ever-timely, not least with Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. 

Yet this deeply felt work is just as powerful as Britten’s oratorio, a strongly expressed antiwar statement that manages to ultimately end in hopeful optimism. The work’s five movements, performed without pause, alternate settings of Walt Whitman, with Bibilcal verses and a speech by John Bright warning of England entering the Crimean War. 

Maeve Höglund was the soprano soloist in Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Dona nobis pacem. Photo: Norman Timonera

From soprano Maeve Höglund’s ethereal rendering of the work’s title phrase (“Grant us peace”) in the opening seconds, one had the sense that this performance would be a notable experience. The angelic sound of the solo soprano was immediately blasted away with the full chorus in “Beat! Beat! Drums!” sung with vehement, violent intensity by the ensemble.

The Grant Park Chorus, under Bell, delivered one of its finest outings of recent seasons—imposing and sonorous yet polished and immaculately blended, bringing touching intimacy as well as emotional fervor.

Höglund was inspired in her solo moments and repeated, pleading repetitions of “Dona nobis pacem.” Her final, plaintive fading away on those words movingly ended the performance, conveying a sense of hushed benediction.

Nathan Berg provided fine timbral contrast as the other soloist, wielding his weighty bass-baritone with Biblical authority and crystal-clear enunciation in his solo moments.

Pulling it all together was Kalmar, who led a powerful yet intimate and affecting performance, the 35-minute work unfolding in a seamless arc.

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

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