Graf, Grant Park Orchestra Brings Out Best in Bruckner

July 10, 2009

That the Grant Park Orchestra, which has not played this almost-impossible and so-often-improbable music in years, rose to the occasion with a performance on the level of some of the world's great Bruckner ensembles was big news.

Despite his Viennese heritage and training, Grant Park Music Festival principal conductor Carlos Kalmar has never been keen on the grand orchestral works of Austria's Anton Bruckner. One hopes that this gifted musician will, in time, give the pious visionary a second look. Under guest conductor Hans Graf, the Grant Park Orchestra demonstrated Wednesday night at the Pritzker Pavilion that it has the chops to take on these giant and mystical works.

Graf, 60, has been doing fine things as music director of the Houston Symphony Orchestra, from many reports. And this Austrian conductor is more typical of his countrymen in seeing Bruckner's music as central to the repertoire. That he showed himself to be able to pull off a remarkable performance of the 70-minute Fourth Symphony (1874-1880) outdoors and with limited rehearsal time was not that surprising. That the Grant Park Orchestra, which has not played this almost-impossible and so-often-improbable music in years, rose to the occasion with a performance on the level of some of the world's great Bruckner ensembles was big news.

No brass, no Bruckner would be a fair diagnosis of what passes for performances of these meditative yet explosive works by many a major orchestra. Certainly the world-renowned Chicago Symphony Orchestra brass has played a major role in the CSO's success with Bruckner under a number of disparate conductors. But from their first entry in the first movement throughout the metaphorical mountain climbing and descents of this piece, the Grant Park brass was right up there with their elder siblings across Michigan Avenue. And the winds and strings were right there with them.

Several people I know stayed away Wednesday in the fear that the usual outdoor noises and ambulance cries would be a distraction from this music, which requires an almost spiritual level of audience concentration. Their loss, as somehow this was the quietest night of the summer thus far. And also one of the finest concerts, thanks to both the expert Graf and the dedicated players. A shame that this program, which opened with a rich reading of the overture to Mozart's "The Magic Flute," was a one-off.

This weekend will bring Irish-born, Scottish-based chorus director Christopher Bell back to the podium for highlights from Gilbert & Sullivan's "The Pirates of Penzance" and "The Mikado." Bell has been on a roll this season with remarkable chorus-only concerts of American composers indoors at the adjoining Harris Theater, a wholly idiomatic and stirring bizarre 1940s paean to communism by a much-pushed-around Shostakovich last month and the first-ever all-American Independence Day orchestral concert Saturday. He led the latter concert with all the pleasure and joy of someone who has discovered America from the outside and found his work here the fulfillment of a dream.

Andrew Patner, Chicago Sun-Times.