Grant Park Debut Smacks of Child's Play

July 19, 2010

It generally succeeded in entertaining a contemporary audience in a way that was common a half century or more ago.

Julian Kuerti, 33, conducted his first concert with the Grant Park Orchestra on Friday night in a kind of program that was old beyond his years. It combined repertory presented at youth concerts, meaning music of less gravitas than charm. It generally succeeded in entertaining a contemporary audience in a way that was common a half century or more ago.

The program opened with the Grant Park premiere of the 1919 ballet "La Boutique Fantasque" with music by Rossini orchestrated and arranged by Respighi. The second half held familiar sets of variations by Brahms and Britten. All showed more care than brio.

"Boutique" comes from the less adventurous side of Serge Diaghilev's Ballets of Russes. For much of its history, the score did without connecting tissue between principal dances. Not here.

The complete ballet amounted to 44 minutes of music filled with color, sparkle and warmth. Tempi and rhythmic alertness kept us aware that this was not an orchestral showpiece but a score to be danced. And Kuerti's gentleness, at times enchanting in its refusal to push, went some way to make up for less than a full measure of brilliance and physical excitement.

The music-for-children theme returned with Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra," which without narration (as here) is better identified by the composer's alternate title, "Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell." This, of course, is an orchestral showpiece despite its original uses as a teaching aid. So I missed flamboyance in Kuerti's cool, rather unengaged account, particularly in the giddy final fugue when both themes regally sound together.

Brahms' popular "Variations on a Theme of Joseph Haydn" was, likewise, sensitive, clear and lacking in personality. Absent was the strong character remarked on during Kuerti's just-completed years as assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the warhorse moved too comfortably without it.

Alan G. Artner, Chicago Tribune