A Rare Stravinsky Kiss

July 30, 2010

In the case of the Grant Park Music Festival this summer, there has rarely been that one sure bet for comfort-food programming. Instead, each week is more like a collective civic discovery, and such was the case

A betting man hears that an orchestra is performing a Stravinsky ballet at a large outdoor festival, and he throws his money on "The Rite of Spring" or the "Firebird." If he's feeling lucky, then perhaps "Pulcinella."

In the case of the Grant Park Music Festival this summer, there has rarely been that one sure bet for comfort-food programming. Instead, each week is more like a collective civic discovery, and such was the case on Wednesday night in Millennium Park with Stravinsky's oft-neglected "The Fairy's Kiss" (1928), a work written in between popular and critical successes during a highly creative period in the Russian's career.

Now the music director of the Tampere Philharmonic in southern Finland, Finnish guest conductor Hannu Lintu, 42, led a nuanced if casual performance of this beautiful homage to Stravinsky's most famous compatriot, Tchaikovsky. These odds and ends aren't stripped from his most popular material, but derive from lesser-heard moments in his songs, piano works and symphonies. (Tchaikovsky's well-known song "None but the Lonely Heart" does make an appearance.) Instead of the normally shortened divertimento form, this was a complete performance of the score.

For 45 minutes, the music traces the narrative of the Hans Christian Anderson tale "The Ice Maiden," where a young boy is kissed by a fairy with significant consequences. Much of the Tchaikovskian warmth is still there, but the music is also restructured through Stravinsky's cooler harmonic language.

One disadvantage Wednesday was how Stravinsky's detailed orchestration withered in the sound-oppressive outdoors. (At one point, screaming sea gulls mimicked the ballet's whirling tempos.) Gone are the fiercely convulsive rhythms from Stravinsky's earlier ballets, and here is a mostly carefree and amiable jaunt. It was hard not to imagine this music enjoying visual treatment indoors, where Hintu's idiomatic reading might've been easier to appreciate.

If Stravinsky tends to curb emotionalism, then Liszt indulges it. After intermission, the German pony-tailed pianist and Liszt specialist Markus Groh gave a convincingly lavish performance of the Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Major, Op. 23, a work in love with its own thematic ideas. Groh's heavily amplified piano added sensuality, and principal cellist Walter Haman was superb in his accompanying solos. The Grant Park Orchestra sounded big and seductive.

Capping the program (which repeats tonight) was a return to source materials: musical postcards Tchaikovsky wrote from his visit to Italy, "Capriccio italien," Op. 45 (1880). This might be the musical companion to cotton candy.

Bryant Manning, Chicago Sun-Times