Elina Vähälä Lights Up a Spirited Opening to Grant Park Music Festival’s Summer Season

June 17, 2010

Thousands of people found their way to Millennium Park to hear the Grant Park Orchestra play Berlioz, Vivaldi and Respighi.

The Grant Park Music Festival has had its share of weather-challenged opening nights. There have been cold, rainy openings and others when audiences melted from the heat.

But Wednesday night’s mild, breezy weather was ideal to launch the festival’s 76th season of free outdoor concerts. Thousands of people found their way to Millennium Park to hear the Grant Park Orchestra play Berlioz, Vivaldi and Respighi under the silvery curls of the Jay Pritzker Pavilion at Randolph, east of Michigan. It was one of those nights when downtown Chicago’s signature mix of glowing skyscrapers and dense green trees looked like a million bucks.

Which is also how the orchestra, led by principal conductor Carlos Kalmar, sounded once they got rolling. The musical mood was light and festive. Rome at Carnival time was the theme of the opening and closing works: Berlioz’s "The Roman Carnival Overture" and Respighi’s "Feste Romane". In between came an incendiary performance of Vivaldi’s "The Four Seasons" with Finnish violinist Elina Vähälä.

The Berlioz sounded scrappy in spots, as if the players hadn’t quite settled into a cohesive unit. Kalmar, who is opening his 10th season as the orchestra’s principal conductor, downplayed the opening section’s clamor. Rather than immediately unleashing the score’s firepower, he held it in check, going for a more dulcet, romantic sweep. This was a perfectly valid interpretation, but balances among the various instruments were occasionally off. Not until the end did the brasses seem to settle down and the strings smoothly assert their own, powerful voice.

That voice was extremely expressive in Vivaldi’s iconic quartet of concertos for solo violin and string orchestra. And the Grant Park string players needed all the energy they could muster because Vähälä shot through "The Four Seasons" like a high-powered jolt of electricity.

Tall, slim and full of verve, she was not one of those soloists who aims to reduce an audience to shock and awe with an onslaught of virtuoso firepower. Vähälä had technical firepower to spare, but she seemed much more engaged and genuinely galvanized by each movement’s color and rhythmic drive. There was a hint of wild abandon in the opening Spring concerto, as if the nymphs and shepherds Vivaldi depicts were interested in something much more earthy than dancing. In the slow movement of Winter, however, she and the quietly murmuring orchestra created a sense of cozy contentment.

Choosing to play Respighi’s "Feste Romane" rather than his more familiar "The Fountains of Rome" or "The Pines of Rome" is typical of Grant Park’s fresh approach to programming. The last of the three symphonic poems, which Respighi devised as a trilogy, it has its moments of clichéd, movie-music extravagance. But under Kalmar’s baton, the final moments of "Feste Romane" had all the infectious, often slap-happy chaos of a big city partying hard.

An appropriate soundtrack, come to think of it, for Stanley Cup-crazed Chicago.

Wynee Delacoma, Chicago Classical Review