Jackiw quiets downtown Chicago with extraordinary Beethoven

Thu Jun 29, 2023 at 7:35 am

By Tim Sawyier

Stefan Jackiw was the soloist in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with the Grant Park Orchestra Wednesday night. Photo: Norman Timonera

Performing a work of such transparent delicacy as the Beethoven Violin Concerto amid the sonic backdrop of downtown Chicago seemed like a questionable project. However—as if in deference to violinist Stefan Jackiw’s extraordinary performance with the Grant Park Orchestra—the city kept mostly quiet Wednesday night and the Millennium Park audience was treated to a summer highlight.

Throughout Beethoven’s mammoth canvas, Jackiw’s understated, elegant presence allowed the gentle nuances of his playing and interpretation to speak for themselves, even over the Pritzker Pavilion amplification. From his famously delayed first entrance throughout the expansive Allegro non troppo, Jackiw was thoughtfully attuned to the profound subtleties of Beethoven’s score, shaping lines with careful attention to passing tones and the overall harmonic motion, all with the silvery timbre of his 1704 Ruggeri. The soloist breathed new life into Kreisler’s well-trodden cadenza, emerging at an exquisite pianissimo that allowed for a surging build to the movement’s double bar.

Jackiw was similarly unafraid to explore exceptionally soft dynamics as the Larghetto unfolded, lofting ardent filigree around lyrical contributions from the Grant Park principal winds in Beethoven’s prayerful meditation. The Rondo went with both fire and dancelike grace to cap one of the finest solo outings seen at the downtown festival.

Leading the accompaniment was Jordan de Souza, a McGill grad and former faculty member who recently spent four years with the Komische Oper Berlin. Making his festival debut, the Canadian conductor provided unobtrusive support that seldom hampered Jackiw, but the Toronto native’s reading of the score felt literal, particularly in comparison to his soloist’s sophistication. He led the spacious introduction in an insistent four pattern, and a generalized time keeping prevailed in the orchestral tuttis.

Jordan de Souza conducted the Grant Park Orchestra Wednesday night. Photo: Norman Timonera

This was also apparent in the other works on Wednesday’s program. The evening opened with Bernstein’s Overture to Candide, which can largely do with the kind of punchy emphasis it received from de Souza, but its lyrical second theme lacked sweep and there were fitful balance issues as well. (One also wondered about the dubious  comparison between Bernstein and Dennis Rodman that de Souza drew in his remarks, apparently attempting to establish his Chicago bona fides.)

The evening closed with William Grant Still’s Symphony No. 1 “Afro-American,” where the orchestra’s wind principals captured the bluesy swagger of the opening “Longing.” The pathos of the ensuing “Sorrow” was largely absent in de Souza’s account, though principal oboe Mitchell Kuhn did his best to capture the music’s mournful quality in his languid solos.

The high-stepping “Humor” came off best, with de Souza eliciting the New Orleans jubilation this music calls for, though the concluding “Aspiration” again fell flat. The spectrum of emotions Still injects into his symphony’s final paragraph was elided in de Souza’s casual account, which missed the tension and ambiguity of Still’s upward-striving lines.

Conductor Valentina Peleggi leads the Grant Park Orchestra in Valerie Coleman’s Umoja, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, and Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2 with soloist Stewart Goodyear 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Pritzker Pavilion and Friday at the South Shore Cultural Center. grantparkmusicfestival.com

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