Hough’s return highlights penultimate Grant Park program

Thu Aug 17, 2023 at 8:35 am

By Tim Sawyier

Carlos Kalmar led the Grant Park Orchestra in music of Moszkowski, Mendelssohn and Liszt Wednesday night. Photo: Norman Timonera

It is the final week of this year’s Grant Park Music Festival, and the summer lakefront series is closing its season in trademark style. Under artistic director Carlos Kalmar, the Grant Park Orchestra offered a program of 19th-century fare Wednesday night that felt like a quintessential summer festival evening at the Pritzker Pavilion.

Kalmar has a justified reputation for introducing Millennium Park audiences to obscure works, and so it was Wednesday when the program opened with the first GPO performance of Moritz Moszkowski’s From Foreign Lands.

The composer orchestrated this 1879 set of character pieces from his original version for piano four hands. Each of the suite’s six movements channels a different European country, and does so in an engaging if not necessarily profound manner. “Russian” opens with a somberly tip-toeing clarinet solo, and “Italian” is a colorful tarantella that alternates fey major episodes with sultry minor ones. 

“German” begins with a burnished horn chorale that passes to the strings by way of Brahmsian harmonic pivots, and “Spanish” moves from a smoky oboe solo to a carnival atmosphere.“Polish” has the feel of a vigorous mazurka and the closing “Hungarian” a freewheeling flair with violins leaning into their G-strings.

Kalmar brought out the idiomatic qualities of each movement in a committed performance. Moszkowski was famous as both a pianist and composer during his lifetime, though his easily accessible style had fallen out of favor by the time of his death in 1925. While a charming way to start an outdoor summer evening, From Foreign Lands ultimately made its composer’s fate understandable, even if a lingering jet engine from Air Show practice did not do him any favors.

A Romantic composer with more staying power ensued in Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25, with standout soloist Stephen Hough. The concerto begins almost in medias res, with the piano storming in after just seven orchestral bars, and Hough gave these opening cascades fulminating treatment. He dispatched the Molto allegro con fuoco’s roiling scalar passages with ease and eloquently floated its second theme over a warm orchestral bed, impressively unphased by occasional competition from another jet.

Stephen Hough performed Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Grant Park Orchestra. Photo: Norman Timonera

Hough delicately shaped the transparent Andante’s lyrical lines in the spirit of the composer’s Songs Without Words and was wholly in sync with the scampering youthfulness of the closing Presto-Molto allegro e vivace. While at times perhaps somewhat reserved, Hough was capable of immense power when called for, as in the barnstorming coda. Kalmar presided ably over the straightforward accompaniment.

Hough offered Chopin’s Nocturne No. 2 in E-flat Major, Op. 9, no.2 as an encore, providing a flowing account that nonetheless seemed to gloss over some of the score’s potential poetry.

Franz Liszt’s Les préludes ended the evening. A performance of the Hungarian composer’s most well-known tone poem has closed every summer of the Interlochen Arts Camp since 1928, and for those who have spent time at the storied north Michigan retreat it inevitably has that palpable end-of-summer feel.

Interlochen alum or otherwise, Kalmar’s performance with the GPO had that same sense of simultaneous reflection and anticipation. The murky opening built into a gleaming brass theme, which gave way to swaying horns before another martial, stentorian motive. The GPO brass were stellar throughout, a small handful of horn lapses notwithstanding. Kalmar followed the music’s natural flow and oversaw organic transitions among its contrasting sections. The coda danced precipitously before earlier themes returned transfigured to bring the evening to a close.

The final concerts of the Grant Park Orchestra’s summer season are Friday and Saturday at 6:30 and 7:30 p.m., respectively, at the Pritzker Pavilion. Kalmar leads Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, Mendelssohn’s The First Walpurgis Night, and Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. grantparkmusicfestival.com

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