Young conductor makes impressive debut at Grant Park

July 06, 2011

by Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review

One of the myriad pleasures of the Grant Park Music Festival is the opportunity it presents to encounter young up-and-coming conductors and see what kind of sparks they might ignite with the Grant Park Orchestra.

The portents were favorable Wednesday night for the debut of Andrew Grams with clear skies, perfect weather and a Russian-American program that avoided the usual potboilers. And the 34-year-old Maryland native did not disappoint, displaying natural authority, a graceful podium presence and an impressive musicality that served the Romantic program very well indeed.

A violinist turned batonsmith, Grams is a former assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra and a musician who clearly knows what he wants out of an orchestra with the personality and podium leadership to go about getting it.

The Overture to Borodin’s opera Prince Igor made a fine calling card. Once a concert-hall staple, it has fallen out of favor in recent decades, but remains a worthy curtain-raiser in the right hands. Grams directed the Grant Park musicians in a vital, fresh reading with a spacious introduction and notably vigorous Allegro that deftly downplayed the bombast.

The suite from Aaron Copland’s opera The Tender Land was the homegrown centerpiece of the otherwise Russian program. As shown last summer by the well-received Glimmerglass revival, Copland’s intimate opera merits more performances than it gets and seems a work especially well suited to young artist programs.

Grams and the Grant Park Orchestra certainly whetted the appetite for the opera with the richly idiomatic rendering of the suite. The conductor drew out a lyrical and surprisingly expressive account of this rather slight score. The soaring love duet had an open-hearted Great Plains lyricism as well as the stoic sadness that is always a part of Copland’s best music. There were some wayward wind moments and rhythmic imprecision — some players seemed to have trouble reading Grams’ entrance cues — but this was a radiant performance with notably refined string playing throughout.

Music Professor: “How many symphonies did Tchaikovsky write?” Student: “Three. The Fourth, the Fifth and the Sixth.”

The joke is aged, but the gist still holds true with Tchaikovsky’s early symphonies still largely neglected. While not offering the dramatic ballast and individual stamp of his later works in the genre, Tchaikovsky’s first three symphonies contain much superb music, imbued with melodic distinction and characteristic craft.

The Symphony No. 2 is the finest of these early works, as rich in folkish Russian melody as his later symphonies and with a thrilling finale that is one of Tchaikovsky’s best, if least-known, barn-burning closers.

What was striking about Grams’ direction was how deftly he balanced the fire and lyricism, with the first movement having a natural, organic flow, the Allegro vivo never whipped up for mere volume. The piquant march-like theme of the second movement was as charming as the contrasting section was ripe and uber-Russian in expression. So too the Scherzo held a fine balance between the bustling vigor of the outer sections and the middle trio.

The superb performance was sealed with a blazing yet nuanced rendering of the finale — the opening brass statement majestic and the exuberant variations building cumulative excitement while allowing the lithe, lilting second theme its due. The coda proved all the more effective for the reins being held back by Grams until the exhilarating coda, which drew a sustained ovation from the capacity audience and packed lawn. The strings and brass were at their finest in this performance, led by Jonathan Boen’s evocative horn solos.

It’s too bad that Wednesday’s program isn’t being repeated but with this notable debut the gifted Andrew Grams has earned himself a ticket back to Grant Park next summer.