Grant Park Orchestra Plays Back-up Band for African Kora Virtuoso

August 12, 2010

The Grant Park Symphony's large, loyal audience is willing to hear new things, and its musicians and principal conductor Carlos Kalmar seem equally open to moving beyond the usual round of Beethoven and Brahms.

Maybe it’s the venue—the extravagantly fanciful Jay Pritzker Pavilion rising over a vast, open-air lawn in Millennium Park downtown.

Or perhaps the pavilion’s weekly concerts featuring world music and local pop groups are having an effect. Maybe it’s the fact that the concerts are free.

Whatever the reason, a remarkably relaxed spirit of experimentation permeates the Grant Park Music Festival’s classical programming. The Grant Park Symphony’s large, loyal audience is willing to hear new things, and its musicians and principal conductor Carlos Kalmar seem equally open to moving beyond the usual round of Beethoven and Brahms.

The exotic collaborations that occasionally pop up—whether with local rockers such as Poi Dog Pondering or a Tibetan choir—may or may not work. But they seem driven by genuine musical curiosity rather than a desperate attempt to get bodies into seats.

The West African kora—a 21-string instrument that is plucked like a zither but stands upright like a cello–was the exotic centerpiece of Wednesday night’s Grant Park Symphony concert conducted by Kalmar. The virtuoso soloist was Toumani Diabate, a native of Mali, who brought along five musicians of his Symmetric Orchestra to play acoustic guitar, ngoni (a traditional African guitar), balafon (a xylophone-like instrument) percussion and bass.

The half-dozen West African pieces that Diabate and his colleagues played with the orchestra had a New Agey, go-with-the flow mellowness. Usually driven by folk-like tunes, they were built on repeated melodic phrases and steady, pacing rhythms. Their mood was generally soothing, though jazzy syncopations often erupted, sometimes evoking the lilt and energy of a Celtic jig. The orchestra functioned mainly as a rustling, attentive backup band.

But Diabate’s kora brought an unexpectedly powerful solo voice to the mix. Amplified by microphone, its tone was resonant and clear, combining the bright ping of a harpsichord and the agile, expressive tone of a guitar. Diabate sat front and center with the kora, an instrument with a long neck and a bulbous base, standing upright on the floor, its strings facing him.

Often when non-Western instruments pair with a symphony orchestra, their timbre is a distraction. Their sound can be too weak or simply too dissimilar to blend well or set up a convincing dialogue.

That problem didn’t exist Wednesday night. Diabate, who wrote most of the concert’s pieces, is committed to moving the kora beyond its role as a solo instrument, and his instrument’s voice sounded both authoritative and at ease with the Grant Park Symphony. Whether setting out serene melodies for the orchestra to echo or seizing the spotlight with lightning-fast, bristling cadenzas, Diabate was a virtuoso by any measure.

Wynne Delacoma, Chicago Classical Review