Grant Park Festival Storms the Heavens in Beethoven Finale

August 15, 2009

The Grant Park Orchestra offered an equally stirring experience, closing its 75th anniversary season with that mightiest of symphonies, Beethoven's Ninth.

The heavens of downtown Chicago were stormed on two fronts over the weekend. The Chicago Air & Water Show drew its customary millions for two days of daredevil fly-bys along the lakefront starring the likes of the U. S. Air Force Thunderbirds and the U.S. Army’s Golden Knights Parachute Team.

And at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion Friday night the Grant Park Orchestra offered an equally stirring experience, closing its 75th anniversary season with that mightiest of symphonies, Beethoven’s Ninth. Pritzker’s seats and great lawn can accommodate 12,000, but Friday’s audience spilled well beyond those spaces. Hundreds of listeners lined the low walls leading to the pavilion and spread their blankets on whatever grassy spots they could find near Michigan and Randolph.

Their efforts were rewarded. Under the baton of principal conductor Carlos Kalmar, the Grant Park Orchestra, Grant Park Chorus and four vocal soloists gave a performance as expansive and heroic as the Thunderbirds’ synchronized flying. This was big-hearted but precisely calibrated playing, an exhilarating balance of attention to minute detail and willingness to go for broke. There was a sense that Kalmar and his musicians had scaled their performance to fill every inch of the vast sky and open space that surrounded them.

Outdoor concerts in the middle of bustling cities have built-in drawbacks. Long-time fans of the Grant Park Orchestra can offer a litany of musical moments ruined by ambulance sirens, revving motor cycles and thumping helicopters. But Friday’s concert was a reminder of how exciting symphonic music can be under the open sky.

The previous weekend, to avoid aural spillover from Lollapalooza, the rock extravaganza held in the south end of Grant Park, the Grant Park Orchestra moved into the Harris Theater. The program contained a single work, another heroically scaled Ninth Symphony, by Mahler. The orchestra played beautifully, but the walls seemed to cramp the musicians, and there didn’t seem to be enough room for Mahler’s juicy harmonies and melodies to bloom and resonate. Despite wailing sirens and traffic noise, the Grant Park Orchestra is an ensemble that revels in a space as big as all outdoors.

Mercifully, traffic noise was minimal Friday night. The symphony seized our attention from the quiet opening bars, which were full of restless tension. The first movement’s explosive moments were burly and big-shouldered, yet never bombastic. When the strings seized the spotlight with one of Beethoven’s most tender melodies, they sounded full-bodied and lustrous. In the melancholy Adagio, Kalmar achieved a seamless balance between quiet introspection and uninhibited rapture.

When the vocal soloists and the Grant Park Chorus sprang into action in the final movement, with its famous “Ode to Joy” text, the attentive crowd became utterly rapt. Bass Jason Grant was imposing in the text’s opening lines, hurling forth a stirring demand for joyful song, though his voice sounded stiff later on. Amber Wagner’s flexible, strong soprano provided a bright thread in the sections for full quartet, aided by Kathryn Leemhuis’ more mellow mezzo-soprano. Tenor John McVeigh sounded high-spirited and agile in the syncopated dance rhythms of his solo backed by the equally exuberant Grant Park Chorus.

The chorus, directed by Christopher Bell, has been having a stellar summer, and their performance Friday was full of confidence. The women sounded radiant, the men noble and their massed voices in the climaxes of the “Ode to Joy” set the soul soaring. Synchronized flying indeed.

Wynne Delacoma, Chicago Classical Review