Grant Park Music Festival opens summer season in spirited fashion

Thu Jun 15, 2023 at 12:46 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Concertmaster Jeremy Black performed Saint-Saëns’ Violin Concerto No. 3 at the opening concert of the Grant Park Music Festival Wednesday night. Photo: Norman Timonera

Opening night of the Grant Park Music Festival always feels like a festive start to summer, no matter what the temperature.

Wednesday night’s weather at the Pritzker Pavilion downtown in Millennium Park was more heavy sweaters than flip-flops, but picnickers still dotted the lawn. Long-time fans of the Grant Park Orchestra greeted each other, catching up after the winter hiatus. 

And, best of all, the concert of works by Schumann, Saint-Saëns and Robert Muczynski conducted by Carlos Kalmar, the orchestra’s artistic director and principal conductor, was full of fiery energy.

Kalmar, who will wrap up his Grant Park tenure next season after 25 years, has something close to perfect pitch when it comes to programming. Muczynski’s brief Symphonic Dialogues, which opened the concert, was a jazzy but shrewdly shaded paean to big-city life. 

In opening remarks, Kalmar called the work, composed in 1965, “a voice from the ‘60s, full of great punch” and melodic verve. In the opening section, the orchestra romped though the cheerfully aggressive, off-kilter rhythms like Jets and Sharks ready to rumble in Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. But the more bluesy, nocturnal middle section had the smoky languor of a film noir. As a kickoff to Grant Park’s ten-week festival, it reminded us how exciting and seductive big city life can be.

Carlos Kalmar conducted the Grant Park Orchestra in music of Schumann, Saint-Saëns and Muczynski Wedneday night. Photo: Norman Timonera

The program’s centerpiece, Saint-Saëns’ Violin Concerto No. 3, was another deft reminder of the festival’s riches. The soloist was Jeremy Black, the orchestra’s concertmaster since 2005 and principal second violin of the Pittsburgh Symphony since 2017. His technically dazzling but deeply expressive performance made clear the level of talent individual members of the Grant Park Orchestra bring to the Pritzker Pavilion week after week.

One of Saint-Saëns’ most popular pieces, the concerto veers between lavish virtuoso flights and darker, introspective passages that include some of the composer’s most memorable melodies. Backed by the highly responsive orchestra, Black found a sustaining through line for the concerto’s changeable moods. In the concerto’s opening bars, he sculpted a stark, dramatic melody line, weighty but urgent. That combination of serious and restless contained the seeds for the virtuoso solo flight subsequently unleashed in the finale. 

Soloist and orchestra were particularly attuned in the slow, pastoral second movement. Shaped attentively by Kalmar, the orchestra playing was calm and spacious, responding to Black’s guileless melodies with gentle woodwind solos. 

Kalmar approached the final work, Schumann’s Symphony No. 4, as a sumptuous orchestral showcase, and, for the most part, the players met that test. In this first concert of the season, however, the orchestra wasn’t completely meshed as a fully integrated sonic instrument. At times as the musical lines shifted among various sections of the orchestra, the playing sounded episodic, and the sense of a seamless conversation among equally balanced orchestral sections was sometimes missing.

But the symphony’s final, blazing moments were simply thrilling. With Kalmar driving the players at top speed, as they tore through Schumann’s propulsive rhythms and bits of surging melody, fireworks erupted, literally, along the lakefront. 

It was too early for Navy Pier’s weekly Wednesday light show, but—whatever the source—the fireworks’ random pops and bangs were ideal punctuation for Schumann’s high-spirited closing movement.

More happily, however, the fireworks made a fitting finale for a festive evening and the opening of another Grant Park Orchestra season. 

The Grant Park Music Festival presents Dvořák’s Stabat mater 6:30 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Millennium Park.

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