Kalmar, GPO brush up on their Shakespeare at Harris Theater

Sat Jun 24, 2023 at 11:09 am

By Tim Sawyier

Carlos Kalmar conducted the Grant Park Orchestra in music inspired by Shakespeare Friday night at the Harris Theater.

In years past, the Grant Park Orchestra would move indoors to the Harris Theater for the weekend of Lollapalooza, and that would be the single annual opportunity to hear them in a real concert acoustic. 

However, with more raucous and populated events coming to downtown over the summer—Pride in the Park this weekend, NASCAR next—the orchestra is having to adapt more frequently in terms of venues and scheduling.

While some may miss the al fresco atmosphere of the Pritzker Pavilion, the additional opportunities to experience this exceptional orchestra unamplified and relatively free of distractions are most welcome. Such was the case Friday night, when the GPO and artistic director Carlos Kalmar offered a stellar program of music inspired by Shakespeare from within the Harris’s confines.

The program opened with Weber’s Overture to Oberon, which infectiously culls themes from the composer’s final opera. Kalmar brought out all the refinement in this score, from the mournful opening horn call through the GPO strings’ articulate acrobatics in the scampering passages.

Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music, inspired by lines from The Merchant of Venice and originally written to include 16 vocal soloists, was heard in its orchestral version. Concertmaster Jeremy Black was a standout, singing his extended violin solos with pure tone and limpid delicacy. Kalmar’s leadership drew out the work’s lush, organic lyricism.

Three selections from Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream closed the first half. The Grant Park winds glowed in the opening chords of the Overture and sparkled articulately in the Scherzo, both of which fizzed under Kalmar’s energetic and attentive direction. The strings maintained an impressive collective pianissimo throughout these movements’ fey fleetness, and Kalmar brought vigorous nobility to the ubiquitous Wedding March to close the set.

The order of the two works on the second half was switched, leading off with Shostakovich’s Suite from the Incidental Music to the Film Hamlet, heard in its GPO debut. While it was interesting to hear from this relatively obscure corner of the Russian’s oeuvre, one was left with the sense that this series of vignettes would come off more effectively in the context of the accompanying film, as Kalmar alluded to in preliminary comments. The short episodes are certainly evocative and characteristically Shostakovich, yet do not really develop or paint compelling pictures on their own. Still, the orchestral playing was again dynamic across the board, even if the result was at best the sum of its parts.

The evening closed with Tchaikovsky’s Hamlet Fantasy Overture after Shakespeare, which eschews a narrative approach and instead offers a series of through-composed character sketches. While the result is somewhat less indelible than the composer’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, the score is still vintage Tchaikovsky and teems with ardent expression.

Kalmar and the GPO were firing on all cylinders, and one was grateful here as throughout the evening to experience what they can do in a more formal concert environment. Second-season principal oboe Mitchell Kuhn offered a plaintive, sighing solo, perhaps recalling the protagonist’s affection for the doomed Ophelia, and Kalmar charted a sure course through Tchaikovsky’s smoldering episodes and to the deathly conclusion.

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

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