A Ligurian, a Brit, and a Bavarian walk into a peninsula — Grant Park’s ‘Italian Variations’

August 15, 2009

Works of three composers, British, Italian, and Bavarian, drew inspiration from Europe's southern peninsula.

The Grant Park Music Festival lost its visionary general and artistic director James W. Palermo in the pre-season to the top management position at the Colorado Symphony Orchestra in Denver. But Palermo worked so carefully and intelligently in Chicago that even without a successor in place (or even yet found), the 75th anniversary season of the free city and Park District concert series can be pronounced a great success as it looks to its finale concerts of Beethoven’s great Ninth (Choral) Symphony Friday and Saturday nights at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion.

Principal conductor Carlos Kalmar will lead the Grant Park Orchestra and Christopher Bell’s similarly superb Grant Park Chorus along with four young American vocalists in those concerts. Normally one of the greatest challenges of the repertoire, Kalmar and the orchestra already strongly tackled Gustav Mahler’s own crowning but instrument-only Ninth Symphony last week at the Harris Theater.

Wednesday night at Grant Park held less dramatic fare but showed off the more unusual repertoire that was a part of Palermo’s mission and which Kalmar and Bell -- to say nothing of the thousands of GPMF concertgoers -- are also so committed to. Dubbed “Italian Variations,” works of three composers, British, Italian, and Bavarian, drew inspiration from Europe’s southern peninsula.

Luciano Berio (1925-2003) played wonderful games with music, some subtle, some dramatic, some obvious, many masterworks. In 1975 he took four known manuscripts of a 1780 string quartet movement by Boccherini depicting a procession in Madrid and superimposed and transcribed them for orchestra, coming up with a sort of Italian version of Ravel’s Bolero complete with time-setting drum.

During his American sojourn Benjamin Britten was asked by Lincoln Kirstein in 1941 to create some arrangements of bits of Rossini -- such as he had done earlier, in 1937, with his Soirées Musicales, -- for George Balanchine to set as a dance with their American Ballet Company. Musically this 15-minute second set was dubbed Matinées Musicales, but the score is better known as Balanchine’s Divertimento, premièred in Rio de Janeiro a few months later.

Richard Strauss (above at 22, at the time of Aus Italien), too, was drawn to the light side of Italian life, its street fairs and gaiety, but he used theses influences to more lasting effect, creating in Aus Italien (“From Italy”) in 1886 a prototype for the symphonic tone- poems that would consume him in the 1890s and secure his place in music history. This 40-minute, four-movement work (its successors would be packed into single movements with structures all their own) has both the impressions of a 21-year-old Strauss experiencing the beauty and liveliness just over the Alps from Munich and early versions of the unique themes and stylistic methods that would become signatures of the Strauss sound just a few years later.

As he does, Kalmar gave each piece its due and showed off the excellent sections of the orchestra along the way. Beethoven’s Ninth kicks off at 6:30 Friday and 7:30 Saturday. You shouldn’t miss it. But get there early: Even weeknights have been packed this year.

Andrew Patner, Chicago Sun Times