Lisitsa’s Rachmaninoff heats up a chilly night at Grant Park

August 15, 2013

by Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review

The penultimate program of the Grant Park Music Festival’s 79th season offered a Russian lineup with two rarities and a beloved concerto warhorse. Even though Wednesday’s pleasant weather turned downright chilly at concert time, the event still drew the largest crowd of the summer for a classical event, estimated at over 11,000.

Part of that huge turnout was likely for Rachmaninoff and part for the evening’s soloist, Valentina Lisitsa. An annual visitor to the lakefront festival from the 1990s, the Ukrainian pianist has been less visible at Grant Park in recent seasons.

Lisitsa has been highly visible online, however, where her savvy self-promotion has made the pianist something of an internet sensation, drawing an estimated 30 million people to her YouTube channel.

Rachmaninoff remains core repertory for Lisitsa and her big-boned take on the Russian composer’s Piano Concerto No. 2 was clearly meant to be a crowd-pleaser. Her technique remains impressive, with daunting power, speed and mostly precision Wednesday night.

What was somewhat lacking was the sense of poetry and melancholy languor. While she distilled the dark lyricism of the Adagio spaciously, at times one wanted a softer and more yielding touch in the interior moments with Lisitsa’s hard tone a bit jarring.

The finale was undeniably exciting, however, Lisitsa’s muscular sound and blazing bravura riding over the orchestra in full cry with an unbridled race to the coda. Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra served up an accompaniment as fiery and rich of tone as their soloist and all received a vociferous and prolonged ovation from the Millennium Park multitude.

Alexander Borodin wrote three symphonies, the last left unfinished at his death. None are performed with much regularity these days, so it was a nice bit of offbeat programming by Kalmar to offer Borodin’s Symphony No. 2 Wednesday night.

Even by Borodin’s standard, the Second Symphony is an uber-Russian piece, with the composer mining nationalistic themes from Prince Igor, when he temporarily abandoned work on the opera.

There is an indomitable strength and Slavic weight to the opening movement counterpoised by the lyrical second theme. The slow movement contains a haunting nocturnal horn solo, atmospherically played Wednesday, and the symphony is rounded off with a slam-bang finale and emphatic coda.

As is the case with so many second-rate symphonies, the Scherzo is the best part, charming, light-footed music that recalls Mendelssohn in elfin caprice mode. No masterpiece, but Borodin’s workmanlike yet attractive symphony proved enjoyable enough with Kalmar and the Grant Park musicians giving their best advocacy and playing with polish and conviction.

The evening led off with lighter fare, Rodion Shchedrin’s Naughty Limericks. This motoric burlesque is a trifle but an entertaining trifle, snappily orchestrated with some high-wire brilliance for trumpet and horn. Kalmar led a fizzing performance with the Grant Park principals throwing off the sardonic bravura with outsized panache.

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