Kalmar, Grant Park Orchestra Close the Summer in Grand Style with Mahler

August 23, 2010

This Mahler performance largely provided a rousing ending to yet another rich season from the Grant Park Music Festival, one of our city's leading cultural treasures.

The Grant Park Music Festival wrapped its season with Mahler’s epic Symphony No. 2, a work that calls for a sense of fine detail as well as grand sweep, and by and large, Saturday night’s performance had both

In a city with the rich Mahler tradition of Chicago, comparisons are tough. Fine as the Grant Park Orchestra’s playing is, they can’t quite summon up the CSO’s corporate sonority and weight, in part due to smaller orchestral forces. With brass and percussion dominating tuttis. at times one wanted more ballast of string tone underneath.

Still, from the intensely projected playing of the cellos and basses in the opening theme, you knew you were in for a dramatic performance. Kalmar showed himself a deft guide in this 80-minute journey from darkness to light. and was especially impressive in the long first movement holding the 35-minute span together with strong forward momentum.

If the Andante sostenuto could have used a bit more charm, it was beautifully played with dynamics scrupulously observed. Kalmar’s take on the Scherzo was aptly in the vein of light caprice, rather than bitter sarcasm.

Allyson McHardy was a memorable Angel in last summer’s performances of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius in Millennium Park, and, proved a stalwart soloist in the Urlicht movement, singing the text with radiant sensitvity. Soprano Katrina Gauvin sounded a but underpowered Saturday veering into sprechstimme rather than a sustained tone, though both Canadian singers rose to the heavenly heights in the closing section with the Grant Park Chorus.

There were more al fresco disturbances than usual Saturday night and all at the worst possible times: a succession of wailing sirens during the gentle pastoral passages of the opening movement; a loud motorcycle at the exact moment of the choruses’s entrance in the finale, and what sounded like a Park District employee dumping a large number of glass bottles into a metal garbage can just as Gauvin was about to sing.

All that may have contributed to the difficult finale not quite coming off. Also, the choral singing proved disappointing. Prepared by guest choral director Kathy Saltzman Romey, the ensemble made a mighty sound in the closing pages but was far too loud at their first entrance, and their quiet singing was bland and expressionless.

Still, this Mahler performance largely provided a rousing ending to yet another rich season from the Grant Park Music Festival, one of our city’s leading cultural treasures. Long may it continue.

Lawrence Johnson, Chicago Classical Review