Gerhardt’s fresh, expressive Dvořák highlights mixed Grant Park opener

Thu Jun 13, 2024 at 10:35 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Alban Gerhardt performed Dvořák’s Cello Concerto at the season-opening concert of the Grant Park Music Festival Wednesday night. Photo: Norman Timonera

The skies were clear, the temperature pleasant and humidity comfortable for the opening concert of the Grant Park Music Festival Wednesday night at Millennium Park. 

The first event of the festival’s 90th anniversary season drew a full pavilion and over five thousand lawn attendees to hear Carlos Kalmar lead the Grant Park Orchestra in a concise populist program. In his introduction, Kalmar kept his comments to the evening’s selections, but the pachyderm in the park is that this summer marks his 25th and final season as the festival’s artistic director and principal conductor.

The clear highlight of this rather mixed opener was the evening’s main work, Dvořák’s Cello Concerto with Alban Gerhardt as solo protagonist.

Kalmar is collaborating with some of his favorite colleagues in his final season, and the conductor’s simpatico artistic relationship with the German cellist was evident throughout this tight and dramatic Dvořák outing.

The performance got off to a dicey start with an ear-piercing fusillade of police and ambulance sirens bedeviling the orchestral introduction of the opening movement; fortuitously, the noise faded down just in time for the cellist’s first entrance.

Gerhardt brought striking freshness to this familiar work, with his warm, singing tone a consistent pleasure. The soloist was fully in synch with the restless drama as well as the pastoral lyricism of Dvořák’s concerto, bringing intimate shading to the second theme. In the Adagio, Gerhardt’s sensitive playing drew one into the wistful essence of Dvorak’s inward rumination with expressive playing that never crossed into sentimentality.

The finale was aptly intense with incisive playing by Gerhardt in the march-like main theme. The cellist kept a mobile pace in the modern manner, not lingering unduly while still bringing tenderness to the meditative pages before the fiery coda.

Kalmar is one of the finest accompanists in the business and under his attentive direction, the Grant Park Orchestra delivered strong tuttis and boldly projected, flexible playing that was the full equal of their soloist. At his curtain call, Gerhardt asked the entire horn section to stand for applause in recognition of their beautiful and evocative playing in the slow movement.

The rest of the concert offered music of English composers and fared less well—not through any fault of the performances but due to the music and the presentation.

Carlos Kalmar conducted the Grant Park Orchestra in music of Britten, Dvořák and Anna Clyne Wednesday night. Photo: Charles Osgood

The evening led off with Anna Clyne’s Masquerade. Written in 2013 for the Last Night of London’s Proms concerts, Masquerade was inspired by the high and low culture of the London “pleasure gardens” that gave rise to the Proms. The lively five-minute curtain-raiser is engaging enough, alternating a chorale-like theme with an old English drinking song. Yet Clyne’s work is done in by her thick scoring, the cacophonous percussion making for a musical coda that feels more brutalized than brilliant.

Benjamin Britten‘s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra closed the evening. Britten’s witty and whimsical showpiece was created in 1945 for an educational film to teach children about the instruments of the symphony orchestra.

There is a reason why this piece is almost always done without narration outside of kids’ concerts, as was made clear Wednesday night. Somebody had the dubious idea to turn the narration into “A Chicagoan’s Guide to the Orchestra” with a new, would-be humorous, Chicago-centric text by Joe Janes and Chris Collins alternating with the musical selections. 

This mght have worked more effectively with better writing, but the results here veered from mildly amusing to (mostly) painfully unfunny, the lame jokes replete with corny Chicago clichés and chamber of commerce rah-rah: Purcell’s theme “would make even Al Capone want to tap his toes” and “The violas are the deep-dish of the string sections”; or about the trumpets, “These cats are the Miles Davis of the brass section.” 

No fault of Irika Sargent, news anchor of CBS Chicago, who delivered the narration with clear-voiced efficiency. The orchestra played brilliantly across all sections but Britten’s music was pushed into the deep background by the cringe text, which made for an excruciating experience that seemed interminable.

Let’s hope for better things with Elgar and Holst this weekend.


Chicago’s adventurous lakefront festival has decided to follow one of the most self-defeating of classical concert trends by completely eliminating printed programs this summer. 

Concertgoers were handed a flimsy brochure Wednesday night with program information limited to titles of works and the names of the conductor and soloist. The only way to read Katherine Buzard’s excellent notes is by using a QR code on the handout. No program notes are posted on the Grant Park website nor are there any links to access them.

A festival spokesperson said that the programs were jettisoned to “reduce costs, eliminate paper waste, and to offer a program book platform that is readily available to patrons in both the seating bowl and on the lawn.”  

The paper handout may not say a word about the music but it does manage to list corporate sponsors, and the names of all festival officers, past chairs, directors and hundreds of high-end donors. Priorities.

Carlos Kalmar conducts the Grant Park Orchestra in Gustav Holst’s The Cloud Messenger (with the Grant Park Chorus) and Elgar’s Violin Concerto with soloist Christian Tetzlaff 6:30 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Millennium Park.

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