Cellist Gerhardt Sparks Russian Program at Grant Park

July 15, 2010

There was outstanding playing by the Grant Park musicians throughout with especially inspired work from trumpeter David Gordon, pianist Andrea Swan, and flutist Mary Stolper.

The Russian steppes seemed even further away than usual on a humid Wednesday night in Millennium Park. Yet with Grant Park Music Festival favorite Alban Gerhardt sparking the evening’s Russian program, the lively music-making largely dispelled any sense of enervation.

Wednesday’s lineup under conductor Hans Graf managed to avoid the usual Russian programming suspects, with Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme the evening’s centerpiece with Gerhardt as solo protagonist.

Tchaikovsky never wrote a cello concerto, to the dismay of lower-string instrumentalists everywhere, but his graceful 18-minute set of variations for cello and orchestra does nicely. The lightish divertissement is especially well suited to summer al fresco music-making, and Gerhardt’s easy bravura proved well-suited to the task.

With his extraordinary Gofriller instrument, Gerhardt brought out the lyricism of the variations expressively, tempered with a refinement—even in the cadenza—that kept the music within neo-Classical parameters. Yet the final virtuosic burst went like the wind with Graf and the orchestra gamely keeping pace with the unbridled tempo of their soloist.

Tchaikovsky was usually a perceptive critic of his own music if not always that of his colleagues. (He had no use for Brahms, uncharitably referring to the German composer as a “giftless bastard.”)

It was a nice touch to begin the evening with Tchaikovsky’s The Tempest, an early, rarely heard “fantasy overture” inspired by Shakespeare, like his Romeo and Juliet, and cast in the same structure. Still despite Tchaikovsky’s polish and craft, it’s hard not to agree with the composer’s own judgment that this early work is “too long, episodic and unbalanced.” There are some inspired elements, like the sea music that frames the overture, a worthy storm, and the galumphing lower-string theme for the brutish Caliban. Yet the love theme for Miranda and Ferdinand lacks the indelibility of the composer’s best music, and the piece overall seems more calculated and less inspired.

Graf led the musicians in an atmospheric and concentrated performance that made the best possible case for this non-essential Tchaikovsky, whipping up a raging squall and spaciously moulding the evocative opening and closing sections

The Firebird may be the most beloved of Stravinsky’s Diaghilev ballets with its rich melodies and iridescent scoring, The Rite of Spring the most historically significant for its envelope-pushing audacity, primal power and rhythmic complexity.

But though less overtly flashy, Petrushka may be the greatest achievement of all three. The tragic fantasy of the anthropomorphic title puppet melds mournful Russian folk strains into a taut, whirling and wholly unsentimental scenario of the lonely Petrushka, his hopeless love for the pretty Ballerina, fruitless rage against the machine, and pointless demise.

If Wednesday night’s Petrushka couldn’t quite summon up the gleaming tonal brilliance of the finest ensembles, with superb direction by Graf, the performance by the Grant Park musicians was still an outstanding achievement with a famously difficult score on limited rehearsal time.

Graf’s pacing was exemplary throughout, balancing the delicacy and grotesquerie, and proved aptly unsettling at the coda with the nose-thumbing puppet’s apparition. There was outstanding playing by the Grant Park musicians throughout with especially inspired work from trumpeter David Gordon, pianist Andrea Swan, and flutist Mary Stolper.

Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review