Grant Park festival off to a great start

June 16, 2011

by Andrew Patner, Chicago Sun-Times

You might not think of a free outdoor music festival as the place to hear a nuanced and insightful performance of a great and complex repertoire warhorse. Or a delicate 20th century French piano concerto.

You certainly wouldn’t think to find these things in the midst of a tremendous twilight downpour.

But the Grant Park Music Festival is not just any concert series. The Grant Park Orchestra is not “merely” a summer orchestra, and Carlos Kalmar is no ordinary conductor.

In fact, as opening night of Grant Park’s 77th season of free, municipally supported classical music concerts demonstrated, Chicago is home to one of the most versatile, quick-studying and satisfying musical partnerships anywhere. Kalmar, in his first season as the festival’s artistic director as well as his 11th as principal conductor, again showed Wednesday night at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion the total belief he places in his musicians. Putting the nearly hourlong 1830 Berlioz “Symphonie fantastique” on a season opener is quite a statement. But fresh off of a critical and audience triumph at Carnegie Hall with his “off-off-season” Oregon Symphony, Kalmar is rightly confident of his ability to communicate with his ensembles.

And his audiences. Two movements into the Berlioz, the rain started falling hard. And harder. And harder. From where I had moved back (for better views and sound) to the steps between the seating area and the Great Lawn, I saw umbrellas go up en masse but barely a handful of the estimated 3,000 attendees leave. One group of ladies of a certain age continued their picnic, complete with a set table, and their silence as if it was the sunniest day of the summer. In part, the performance became a sort of perverse challenge: Can they play (on the dry stage) as if there is nothing going on in the park in front of them? And can we last, soaked to the skin, to the end of this piece that requires as much subtlety as it does grand sweep? Yes and yes turned out to be the answers. That it stayed warm and was never windy certainly helped, too.

The intermissionless program opened with the graceful and elegant French pianist Jean-Philippe Collard as soloist in the Ravel Concerto in G of 1929-31. Too rare a presence in the United States these days, at 63 Collard still looks like the tall tennis pro he might have become if he had not overcome early criticism as a music student to make a distinguished career in his national repertoire. Game, too, to be a part of the festivities, he even played along at the keyboard — and sans score — with “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Delicacy, care, wit and sensitivity were the hallmarks of his playing the sometimes jazzy, often wistful concerto. Kalmar’s accompaniment, featuring fine work from flutist Mary Stolper, oboist Judith Kulb and trumpeter David Gordon, matched it idiomatically. What could have been an endurance test in the Berlioz that followed turned out to be a different sort of act of defiance: one that said making great music is worth everything, whatever might be going on around you. And that includes making it sound right and hushed even when it would be tempting to ratchet up the volume or emotions.

A moving and, thanks to the weird weather combination, unforgettable evening that bodes very, very well for the summer ahead.