An uneven evening at Grant Park for de la Parra

July 10, 2011

by Alan G. Artner, Special to the Tribune

Mexican-American conductor Alondra de la Parra's first appearance at the Grant Park Music Festival Friday night was in a program that seemed ideal for summer listening -- until one heard it.

A recent score by a contemporary Mexican composer preceded a popular Spanish concerto and lyrical Czech symphony. But performances of these works by Arturo Marquez, Joaquin Rodrigo and Antonin Dvorak were so uneven that the best music proved the least convincing and the rest was hit-and-miss entertainment.

Marquez's "Leyenda de Miliano" ("Legend of Emiliano") is a 13-minute tone poem written for the 2010 bicentennial of Mexico's independence from Spain. It celebrates the military and political hero Emiliano Zapata in the bright colors of posters and murals. De la Parra's account conveyed blatancy more than intensity.

The most striking effect recalls in high writing for strings the legend of cicadas weeping after Zapata's death. It establishes a few still points among bounding and galloping rhythms that get progressively louder but do not go anywhere pictorially or musically. De la Parra's debut in Chicago last year held another piece by Marquez. Should she return as an ambassador for contemporary Mexican music, we hope for a change.

Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez" received the finest performance of the evening. One slip in the slow movement aside, guitarist David Russell was cleanly, incisively fluent, and de la Parra's accompaniment had the right relaxation, if not always lightness and piquancy. But amplification set Russell far in front of a distant band, boosting the size of his guitar and further dimming orchestral ardor at the climax of the Adagio.

Ardor also was missing from de la Parra's Dvorak Seventh Symphony, which proceeded from one episode to another. The image was of beads lined up awaiting a binding string. And given that de la Parra is only 30, we thought such binding might come from youthful passion.

Instead, her coaxing of swells of warm string tone caused lyrical phrases to float from otherwise bland, insufficiently characterized terrain. There was oasis but no sense of sweep. More headlong moments and darker atmosphere in the music counted for very little.