Morlot opens Grant Park residency with light program

Thu Jun 27, 2024 at 7:32 am

By Tim Sawyier

Ludovic Morlot conducted the Grant Park Orchestra in music of Haydn, Strauss and Clarice Assad Wednesday night at Millennium Park. Photo: Norman Timonera

Conductor Ludovic Morlot opened a two-week stint leading the Grant Park Orchestra on Wednesday night. Along with Giancarlo Guerrero and Eric Jacobsen, Morlot is one of three guest conductors making multi-week stands with the orchestra at Millennium Park this summer, in what seems like de facto job interviews to succeed outgoing artistic director Carlos Kalmar.

Morlot had a solid if workmanlike outing in Wednesday’s short program, and it will be interesting to watch how his rapport with the orchestra develops over subsequent concerts.

Wednesday’s program began with the world premiere of Clarice Assad’s Water Nymphs, a colorful five-minute curtain-raiser commissioned by the Grant Park Music Festival. Assad, born in Brazil but a longtime Chicago resident, was on hand for a brief introductory conversation with Morlot about the work, explaining that it was inspired by her daughters’ affinity for the title sea spirits and their merfolk kin.

Assad’s score begins with a murky aquatic texture, alternating between shimmering and menacing qualities. A playful rhythmic section follows, interrupted by a languid sliding cello solo echoed in the brass. Throughout one hears pentatonic resonances with Debussy’s La Mer. Morlot presided over a committed account of Assad’s compact work.

Richard Strauss’s Suite from Der Rosenkavalier followed, and the surging horns of the opening captured Octavian’s raptures with the Marschallin. One will hear more ecstatic readings of the opera’s first section, but Morlot was a sure hand and the Grant Park strings were incisive in their demanding passages.

Morlot elicited a tender “Presentation of the Rose,” led by the lovely oboe melody from Anne Bach. While the ensuing waltzes were rather literal, lacking the echt-Viennese lilt that lends them their charm, concertmaster Jeremy Black was beguiling in his coy violin solos. In the ravishing music of the Trio, Morlot and colleagues felt like they were going through the motions Wednesday, not quite conveying the leave-taking ambivalence of the music.

The boisterous conclusion went with the same vigor as the opening, ending the Suite with the requisite exclamation mark. While Morlot certainly missed some of the captivating poetry of Strauss’ score, he led the proceedings with professional assurance and competence on the festival’s minimal rehearsal time.

The 70-minute program concluded with Haydn’s Symphony No. 104 “London,” the last and amplest of Haydn’s works in the genre and here Morlot was at his best. He brought gravitas to the severe introductory Adagio, and led the ensuing Allegro with poise that the players answered with refined nobility. He knitted the halting passages of the Andante into clear paragraphs, highlighting the subtle woodwind adornments as the movement unfolded.

The emphatic Minuet had an open-air quality that felt ideally suited to the al fresco environment on a perfect summer night. The extended Spiritoso bustled from first to last. While Morlot does not mine as much humor from Haydn’s writing as someone like Nicholas Kraemer, the symphony’s finale went with mirthful propulsion to wrap this brief program.

Ludovic Morlot leads the Grant Park Orchestra in Stravinsky’s Petrushka, and Brahms’ Schicksalslied and Kodály’s Psalmus Hungaricus with tenor Martin Bakari and the Grant Park Chorus 6:30 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Harris Theater. 

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