For Grant Park, Milestone Festival Opener Under Fair Skies

June 12, 2009

A milestone 75th season for Grant Park Music Festival starts out strong.

Opening nights at the Grant Park Music Festival tend to be festive affairs, but the one presented by the Grant Park Orchestra on Wednesday night was more festive than most.

The nation's only remaining free, municipally supported outdoor summer classical music series is marking its 75th anniversary, and that's something to celebrate.

If not for the cold lakefront winds sweeping through Millennium Park, the crowd surely would have been larger than the estimated 10,000 who filled the Pritzker Pavilion and front half of the lawn, according to officials.

At least the huddled masses could be grateful for the dry skies.

Just as the festival is observing a major milestone, so is Carlos Kalmar, who's celebrating his 10th season as music director. The orchestra is playing better than ever under his vigorous leadership, a fact that was evident in the two Russian war horses that made up the program, Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto and Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition," heard in the Ravel orchestration.

Routine summer fare, yet you had the sense that everyone was determined to make a proper occasion of it. British pianist Stephen Hough was firmly in command of Tchaikovsky's heroic if sometimes awkward piano writing.

We've heard so many fire-breathing virtuosos barnstorm their way through this piece that it was wonderful to hear someone making real music out of it. Hough spurred the torrential chordal passages with rock-solid rhythm, while his rubato always flowed out of a deep understanding of the style.

For its part, the orchestra proved to be as fully invested in teaching this old nag of a concerto some new tricks. That said, I was disappointed in the piano sound which, while bright and well-balanced against the orchestra, lacked a firm bass. The orchestral sound emerging from the loudspeakers was pleasing and natural, if somewhat dry and thin before the engineers apparently beefed it up during the Mussorgsky.

Ravel's colorful orchestration of Mussorgsky's best-known piano piece showed off the ensemble's corporate strengths as well as the solo skills of several principal players. (Too bad about the faltering tuba.)

Each section was convincingly done, climaxing in a majestic "Great Gate of Kiev" that sent audience members out into the chill night air eager to discover what the rest of the season has in store for them.

John von Rhein, ChicagoTribune.com