Grant Park's Mahler Solid, Cautious

August 10, 2009

From the urgent opening bars to the frail, poignant farewell, the Grant Park Orchestra strings have rarely sounded better.

Hardly standard fare on the summer orchestra circuit, Mahler's Symphony No. 9 has appeared locally twice this season, much to the delight of the devoted fans of this sprawling, valedictory masterpiece. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra braved the usual outdoor distractions in a rare Ravina performance in July, and Friday the Grant Park Orchestra tackled the daunting, elusive masterpiece for the first time in its 75-year history.

Wisely, the performance took place inside at the Harris Theater; shielding the symphony's extended quiet passages from urban cacophony, a persistent drizzle and the sounds of Lollapalooza in full swing.

For an orchestra with no institutional memory of this titan of the symphonic repertoire, the Grant Park reading was remarkably polished and, at times, moving. Conductor Carlos Kalmar couldn't quite make the first movement hold together; despite uniformly fine playing from his forces. Tempos were only marginally faster than usual, but there was an impatient feel to his pacing that prevented the wistful, nostalgic strains from reaching full bloom. A highlight was the soaring trumpet work of David Gordon, utterly secure and vibrant, even in the highest register.

After a few tentative opening bars, the frolicsome second movement settled down for a rustic treatment, the woodwinds lending their outbursts a pungent, crackling edge. The movement's final joke could have used a more knowing setup, but the pacing and dynamic profile were spot-on.

The dense, sardonic Rondo struck just the right note of defiance, and Kalmar adroitly kept Mahler's tangled strands of counter-point nearly transparent. The middle section felt hurried, but the conductor managed the final acceleration with knife-edge precision. 

After solid-if-cautious accounts of the first three movements, the intensity Kalmar coaxed from the orchestra in the finale came as welcome surprise. From the urgent opening bars to the frail, poignant farewell, the Grant Park Orchestra strings have rarely sounded better.

Michael Cameron, Chicago Tribune