Uneven debut for de la Parra at Grant Park Music Festival

July 09, 2011

by Andrew Patner, Chicago Sun-Times

The young New York-born and -based Mexican conductor Alondra de la Parra has had a roller-coaster year and these ups and downs were reflected in her Grant Park Music Festival debut Friday night.

Just 30, the intellectually and physically striking musician is one of a still small but growing number of women conductors of symphony orchestras. The one that she founded herself in 2004 at age 23, the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas, has garnered strong reviews and released a well-received crossover CD this spring on Sony, “Travieso Carmesi,” but last month had to suspend all operations indefinitely for financial reasons. A finalist for the leadership of the Chicago Sinfonietta, de la Parra lost out after an uneven performance this season to another woman, Taiwanese-born Mei-Ann Chen, 37.

Friday night she showed the pattern that has dogged her — a new piece from Mexico and a classic Latin work (here with a highly experienced soloist) — where she was at her best, and a cornerstone of the European repertoire where her youth and other limitations were too obvious.

The programming of “Leyenda de Miliano” (“Legend of Emiliano”), the U.S. premiere of a new work by contemporary Mexican composer Arturo Marquez, and Joaquin Rodrigo’s 1939 “Concierto de Aranjuez” for guitar and orchestra perhaps showed a bit of cheekiness on the conductor’s part. The Marquez piece celebrates Emiliano (“Better to die on your feet than live on your knees!”) Zapata and his role in the Mexican Revolution which started in 1910 while Rodrigo wrote and had his piece premiered to honor his return to Spain after the Fascist leader Francisco Franco overthrew the Republican government there and established his 35-year dictatorship. (Rodrigo remained in Spain as a highly decorated beneficiary of the regime for its full run, and died in Madrid at 97 in 1999.)

As with an earlier Marquez work heard at Grant Park, there are ideas here — chiefly in this case an alternation of moods and an eerie introduction of instrumental cicadas “weeping” after the murder of the revolutionary in 1919. But the main and overly repetitive sections of the 15-minute work have the heavy and unoriginal rhythms of a Lexus commercial. The Rodrigo, concerning and essentially made for outdoor, summer nights outside of Madrid, had the Scots-born, Spanish-raised David Russell, now in his late 50s, as the gifted soloist. De la Parra brought the orchestra down appropriately to let the guitar lines float and they did this most effectively over and around the Great Lawn, especially in the beloved Adagio intertwining with the melodies from Judith Kulb’s idiomatic English horn. Rodrigo’s reactionary musical tastes created some great imaginary revivals of courtly Spain, whatever his politics.

Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony, the D minor, Op. 70 from 1884-85, is in many ways his most subtle and most carefully crafted and de la Parra was just not up to either of these aspects of the four-movement 40-minute work. Starting with the mysterious opening of the opening movement, she offered an approach both too straightforward and too episodic. Let’s hope that she still is growing and will not only become a specialty conductor.

Friday’s concert had another development that had nothing to do with de la Parra — in fact that was the problem. In a perfectly understandable, even wise, move, the Grant Park Orchestral Association, the volunteer sponsoring group for the Festival, is hoping to launch a young professionals group or junior board. The execution of the first gathering of invitees was an embarrassment, however, as some 80 well-heeled and well-dressed young adults stood and ate and drank and talked (loudly) on the Great Lawn, oblivious to the concert and to the picnickers on three sides of them trying to hear the music. These folks didn’t even seem to notice when the concert itself ended and the audience applauded, except as they began to wonder how to get to their post-performance Lake Michigan cruise.

In a written response to a request for comment on this fiasco, interim Festival executive director Leigh Levine said: “The Festival regrets the situation which developed on the Great Lawn last night and hopes it did not diminish the enjoyment of the concert by the many thousands of concert-goers in the Park last night. The Festival strives to make the concert-going environment as friendly and as open to all comers and sometimes the right balance of enjoyment and respect for the musicians performing is not struck.”

And Levine continued, “It is certainly hoped that any such [support] group would come to the park first and foremost to savor the music, and the Festival will continue to use all the tools possible to encourage appropriate behavior at such events in the future.”

One certainly hopes so. That the site of hundreds of families and groups listening quietly and intently to a free concert was marred by a gathering of “young professionals” was jarring, unpleasant and an insult to the audience, the guest performers and the wonderful true professionals of the Grant Park Orchestra itself. That the event was sponsored by the Festival’s board of directors and never quieted down or was properly managed by them was inexcusable.