Fourscore and one year ago, our city forefathers brought upon this burgeoning city a new musical entity, the Grant Park Orchestra, and proclaimed it free to the public. Last Wednesday, that esteemed ensemble, an unofficial harbinger of Summer in the city, opened its 81st season at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.
Carlos Kalmar, starting his 16th year as Principal Conductor, chose a popular program featuring two crowd-pleasing composers, Rachmaninov and Beethoven.
Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony is one of the classical repertoire’s iconic scores. The symphony’s opening movements exude a calm, joyful serenity before ending in a driving flourish. For me, the seamless blending of each note into the next, building, in the second movement, into passages of intense lyricism are testimony to Beethoven’s mastery of sound, in spite of his total hearing loss. Kalmar showed a sure sense of rhythmic structure, letting the early music unfold naturally without pushing the sound before propelling the third and fourth movements forward without any pause.
In the program’s first half, Kalmar chose Rachmaninov’s first composition, written at 18, the lesser-known Piano Concerto No. 1 rather than the more polished and lyrical Concertos #2 and #3. Soloist Yevgeny Sudbin, who has appeared in major European venues, including London’s Wigmore Hall and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, made his Chicago debut and demonstrated dazzling technique along with a lyrical touch. Only the piano’s overly bright sound robbed Sudbin’s interpretation of its more delicate shadings.
As a Music Festival-goer for over 20 years (more consistently since the Gehry bandshell opened), I relish its concerts for the outdoor picnic opportunities Chicago provides but, even more so, for its varied and challenging programming. While offering familiar names such as Mozart, Brahms, Strauss and Sondheim, Kalmar respects his audience’s intelligence enough to play seldom-heard repertoire. This gives the orchestra a distinct identity.
Last weekend’s concerts featured the world premiere of a composition it commissioned, Kenji Bunch’s Symphony No. 3, “Dream Songs”, a song cycle of Native American tribal songs. Other intriguing works on the season calendar include Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony (June 26 & 27), Saint-Saens’ Piano Concerto No. 2 (July 24 & 25), Grant Still’s “Sunday Symphony” (July 29), Haydn’s rarely-performed Harmony Mass (August 7 & 8) and the closing concert, Elgar’s lesser-known oratorio, with features soloists and full chorus, The Kingdom (August 21 & 22).
Concerts are performed three nights each week, once on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. with a different program offered on Friday at 6:30 pm and Saturday evenings at 7:30 pm. Pack a picnic supper often this summer (the Music Festival season runs through August 22) and join the throng on the lawn to revel in top-rank musicmaking that can lift your spirit and make it momentarily forget our messy and sometimes heartbreaking world.