Kalmar, orchestra knock Grant Park festival opener out of the park, despite downpour

June 16, 2011

by John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune

Perhaps they should have played Handel's "Water Music" instead.

Opening night of the 77th Grant Park Music Festival on Wednesday was another of those tugs of war between music and the elements that weather-resigned veterans of downtown Chicago's world-class summer classical music fest have learned to take in stride.

The music won out in the end, but not before intermittent heavy rains sent soaked patrons at the rear of the Jay Pritzker Pavilion and out on the Great Lawn and pedestrian walkways (which were fairly depleted to begin with) fleeing for shelter.

In his opening remarks, Scott Hanlon, a Chicago Park District commissioner and a member of the festival's board of directors, put a smiley face on the situation. "Rain can't ruin our fun tonight," he told the audience. Those Grant Parkers lucky enough to be in covered seating areas could afford to agree with him, but relatively few among the less fortunate stuck it out to the end. As fickle fate would have it, the downpour stopped at almost the same time the concert did.

Carlos Kalmar was beginning his second decade as the Grant Park Orchestra's principal conductor, having recently added artistic director to his title. He was in fine form, and so were his ever-resilient musicians, eagerly giving back what his vigorous and incisive baton asked of them. Together they made something more interesting of a standard all-French program than it promised on paper.

In hindsight, Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major, with its delicate, almost Mozartean scoring, wasn't the ideal choice for a soggy night at Millennium Park. Fortunately the rain remained sotto voce for the duration, as the elegant French pianist Jean-Philippe Collard dispatched this jazzy diversion with martini-dry wit, elan and sophistication. It takes a French pianist to bring out Ravel's nonchalant charm with such style, clarity and finesse. Next time we hear Collard, I hope it will be indoors.

If there was something a bit seat-of-pants about his collaboration with Kalmar and the orchestra, there was a spontaneity to it that overrode passing blemishes. Adding to the fun were the nimble solos of flutist Mary Stolper, English horn player Judith Kulb and trumpeter David Gordon.

No prizes to Grant Park or Ravinia, however, for opening their orchestral residencies with the same work – Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique." (Have the executive directors never heard of cell phones or Twitter?) Worse, the heavens chose this portion of the concert to really pummel the park. In the second movement, "A Ball," the orchestra had to compete with birds loudly squawking from the stage rafters. And the storm gods turned the third section into a soggy scene in the country.

Somehow Kalmar and his musicians managed to triumph over meteorological adversity, palpably determined to search out all the flamboyant color and hallucinatory effects Berlioz packed into his revolutionary masterpiece. Telling instrumental details emerged from lucid textures without disturbing line or flow. Each section was confident of characterization, vivid of incident. The orchestra came through exceedingly well for a festival opener, not least the responsive oboe, English horn and E-flat clarinet soloists.

Kalmar will lead the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus in the first weekend program of the season, 6:30 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Pritzker Pavilion. Music of Schoenberg and Mendelssohn makes up the free concerts; 312-742-7638, grantparkmusicfestival.com.