Kalmar, Grant Park Orchestra Take Trip to Italy on Second-Class Fare

August 13, 2009

Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra spotlight three composers' individual retakes on Italian predecessors.

The Grant Park Music Festival embarked on a sojourn to Italy for the penultimate program of its 75th season Wednesday night at the Pritzker Pavilion.

Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra eschewed the usual Mediterranean tourist traps for some off-the-beaten-track musical byways spotlighting three composers’ individual retakes on Italian predecessors.

As with Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, and Elgar, Italy made a substantial impression on Richard Strauss when he visited in 1886. Writing to Hans von Bulow, the 22-year-old composer noted, “I have never altogether believed in inspiration by the beauties of nature, but I learned better in the ruins of Rome. Ideas simply flew in.”

The young Strauss’s musical souvenir was Aus Italien, a forty-minute tone poem in which Strauss was inspired by the sun, ruins and history of Italy, reimagined in his own distinctive melodic style.

Cast in four movements, Aus Italien is not top-drawer Strauss, with less-than-indelible themes and a tendency to sprawl. The composer hadn’t yet honed his craft and his musical ideas lack the sharpened focus and economy to come. Also, Strauss’s Italian knowledge was less than complete, since in the final movement he makes extensive use of Luigi Denza’s toe-tapping song Funiculi, Funicula, mistakenly believing it to be an Italian folk ode.

Still, while second-rate Strauss, Kalmar drew such a vital and full-blooded performance from the Grant Park Orchestra, it almost convinced you the music was better than it is The burnished cello section was especially fine Wednesday and the brass clarion and exuberant in the antic finale.

Earlier Kalmar led the orchestra in two other works that mine previous Italian composers’ music.

Despite it’s imposing title, Berio’s Four Original Versions of Ritirata Notturna di Madrid by Luigi Boccherini, Superimposed and Transcribed for Orchestra is a bit of a throwaway. A gradual Bolero-like crescendo formed by stacking variant versions of the title Boccherini work on top of each other. Berio’s harmonically subversive treatment is a bit self-conscious in its cleverness but received a worthy performance by Kalmar and the Grant Park musicians.

One doesn’t associate Britten with piquant charm, but the English composer’s Matinees Musicales has its attractions. A retooling of various Rossini pieces, later choreographed by Balanchine, the five sections are smartly scored and Kalmar and the players brought out the lilt and insouciance deliciously.

Lawrence Johnson, Chicago Classical Review