Meyers’ Mexican fiddle showpiece spices humdrum Grant Park program

Thu Jul 04, 2024 at 1:05 pm

By John von Rhein

Anne Akiko Meyers performed Arturo Marquez’s Fandango with the Grant Park Orchestra Wednesday night. Photo: Grittani Creative Ltd

The central takeaway from the third and final program of Ludovic Morlot’s two-week podium residency with the Grant Park Orchestra, heard Wednesday evening at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, was a question:

Has the guest conductor managed to develop a rapport with the orchestra musicians, on limited rehearsal time, sufficient to warrant his being named to succeed Carlos Kalmar as artistic director and chief conductor?

The answer was not immediately clear.

In his favor, the French conductor kept a firm hold on the ensemble, maintained sensible tempos and a clear beat, and secured generally tidy playing from the Grant Parkers within the tight rehearsal time that prevails at Millennium Park.

The musical results he achieved in a venturesome program that preceded Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” Symphony with the Grant Park Music Festival premieres of two Latin-flavored contemporary pieces, ranged from respectable to conscientious routine.

Fortunately the concert enlisted the dynamic violinist Anne Akiko Meyers as soloist to relieve the prevailing ordinariness with a terrific solo vehicle, Arturo Marquez’s Fandango.

Premiered by Meyers in Los Angeles in 2021, the half-hour Fandango is a violin concerto in all but name. The three movements find the Mexican composer surveying the history of the violin as a Latin folk instrument and giving that history back to us transformed into a terrific showpiece for fiddle and orchestra that fairly explodes with lush folkloric color and blazing vitality.

The first movement, “Folia Tropical,” references the familiar Baroque chord progression of “La Folia,” which originated in 18th century Spain before reaching the Americas. Caribbean clave rhythmic patterns and a sultry bolero dress the title sequence in bravura violin gestures, the soloist and orchestra seemingly vying to see who can kick up the hottest Latin licks in their heady dialogues.

The second section, “Plegaria,” derives from another Baroque dance with Iberian roots, the chaconne, transformed into a prayer flavored with the hot-blooded rhythms of huapango mariachi. Meyers traced the meditative prayer with rhapsodic animation.

The finale, “Fandanguito,” sets down a catchy rhythmic groove (inspired by the Venezuelan dance called pajarillo) in a flashy solo cadenza, gathering force in what often feels like an extended improvisation with colorful folk-instrumental underlay.

Meyers’ playing, capably supported by Morlot and the orchestra, was as striking as the dedicatee’s silvery-spangled gown. She tossed off the rapid string-crossings and other virtuosic gimcracks with nonchalant panache, sounding perfectly at home in a piece expressly tailored to her talents. 

If there is no great depth to music that sometimes feels like a lush Hollywood soundtrack to a Mexican travelogue, Fandango went down most agreeably on a languid summer’s night in the park. Small wonder the audience whooped with pleasure at the end.

The sound system unfortunately bleached Meyers’ timbre of much of its warmth, making her penetrating tonal sheen feel almost as big as the entire orchestra, at least to a listener seated near the front of the pavilion.  

Ludovic Morlot led the Grant Park Orchestra in music of Negron, Marquez and Tchaikovsky Wednesday night. Photo: Norman Timonera

Nothing so distinctive opened or closed the program.

The curtain raiser, Color Shape Transmission by Puerto Rican composer Angelica Negron, draws on minimalist rhythmic structures for its manner and shifting densities of sound for its substance. To the usual instrumental panoply the composer adds a “prepared” vibraphone and handheld reed instrument with piano keyboard, neither of which were audible at Wednesday’s performance.

Morlot, who had led the work’s premiere in 2022 with his former orchestra, the Seattle Symphony, gave a presumably faithful accounting of unremarkable music that, at 10 minutes, felt like it was over before it had any chance of developing into something interesting.

Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony ended the evening. This generic, middle-of-the-road reading took wing only in the middle movements, falling short of dramatic intensity in both the deep yearning of the opening movement and the despairing finale. 

To his credit, Morlot shaped the 5/4 second movement with a rather French elegance, while the march-scherzo section moved resolutely to its double bar, followed by the inevitable premature applause. His best efforts to secure clarity of detail were undermined by an electronic sound-picture that felt rather like a flat-screen TV transmission, lacking depth and roundness.

The program will be repeated 6:30 p.m. Friday at the Pritzker Pavilion.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Meyers’ Mexican fiddle showpiece spices humdrum Grant Park program”

  1. Posted Jul 06, 2024 at 7:30 pm by Tim

    It’s amazing how much more peaceably listenable the concert is when there’s no traffic on Columbus Drive (due to NASCAR, Friday night.). While it would not be a cure all, it would be awful nice if that stretch along Millennium Park was closed during concerts.

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