Grant Park Orchestra Offers Taste of Sophisticated Whimsy

July 17, 2010

Young families thronged to Millennium Park's Great Lawn as the Grant Park Orchestra performed whimsical works by Respighi, Britten and Brahms....the Grant Park Music Festival has engaged its mass audiences without forsaking creativity.

To riff on another classical music initiative that brings new faces to symphonic music in Chicago, Grant Park's show Friday evening might as well have been called "Take a Toddler to the Orchestra."

Young families thronged to Millennium Park's Great Lawn as the Grant Park Orchestra performed whimsical works by Ottorino Respighi, Benjamin Britten and Brahms. And this program -- which repeats tonight at 7:30 -- should be lauded for precisely what it isn't: namely, the usual collection of narrative-driven works (i.e. "Peter and the Wolf"), ubiquitous tunes, puppet shows and other visual gimmicks that presenters rely on to attract children to classical music.

Like so much else this summer, The Grant Park Music Festival has engaged its mass audiences without forsaking creativity.

Humidity was intense, but guest conductor Julian Kuerti knows something about toiling in the summer heat, given his work at Tanglewood since 2005 and his studies under longtime outdoor festival maestro James Levine.

The Canadian's direction was most bold and assured in the fairytale soundscapes of Respighi's one-act ballet score, La Boutique Fantasque ("The Fantastic Toy Shop"). Ever the collector and dissector of old music, Respighi patched together various fragments of Rossini's late manuscripts that had not seen publication in his lifetime. What results is a house of mirrors, with fanciful images twisted on their end for 45 playful minutes.

Kuerti and orchestra really let loose in the capricious Can-Can, and concertmaster Jeremy Black and principal cellist Walter Haman offered predictably excellent solos in the score's quieter passages.

Even Brahms's Haydn Variations, Op. 56a (1873) catered to impressionable young ears with its lulling rhythms and halcyon chords.

Bryant Manning, Chicago Sun-Times