Soggy weather can't dampen fiery music-making at Grant Park season opener

June 15, 2011

by Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review

To paraphrase Jackie Gleason, the Grant Park audiences must be the hardiest musical audiences in the world.

The Grant Park Music Festival’s season-opening concert Wednesday night at Millennium Park was hit by some of the worst weather on an opening night in years. Things looked promising when the daylong rains abated right before the concert began. Unfortunately, the weather gods were not beneficent and the heavy downpour returned with even greater intensity halfway through Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique and continued until just before the end of the performance.

The lawns were nearly empty at concert’s end but it’s a testament to the toughness of Grant Park’s music-loving audiences that very few people left the Pritzker Pavilion before the end of the Berlioz. Most of those sitting in the “wet” exposed areas on the left and right sides at the front, simply put up their hoods, unfurled their umbrellas and continued listening to the music.

Even with the meteorological distractions, Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra kept a keen focus on the music as well, leading off the festival’s 77th season with fizzing performances of two French concert cornerstones.

Jean-Philippe Collard

Jean-Philippe Collard has not been a frequent guest to Chicago in recent seasons. That’s unfortunate because in the wonderful performance of Ravel’s Concerto in G that opened the evening, the veteran French pianist showed that even now few can rival him in this repertoire.

Collard’s easy blend of tonal refinement and fleet-fingered bravura made this Gallic keyboard warhorse emerge freshly minted. In the Adagio, Collard’s simplicity of phrasing allowed Ravel’s long-breathed cantilena to sound without undue expressive underlining. The pianist’s polish and crystal-clear articulation in the outer movements were bracing, with the finale taken at a crackling velocity.

The orchestral playing was on the same high level, with Kalmer drawing vibrant and characterful wind playing and providing glove-like support to Collard in the concluding Presto.

Those who were able to listen through the al fresco distractions of the rainstorm — rain loudly drumming on umbrellas, the moving around to avoid persistent leaks from the roof, and the occasional departure of the less intrepid — heard a fiery and compelling performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique that need make no apologies for the unfavorable weather.

Inevitably some of the more nuanced hues and subtleties of Berlioz’s phantasmagorical fantasy are sacrificed in an outdoor venue, even in good weather. But it was striking how much of Berlioz’s audacity and originality came through Wednesday night in the Grant Park Orchestra’s idiomatic performance.

In the opening “Reveries and Passions,” Kalmar took a notably spacious approach. The appearance of the motto theme was given due emphasis but Kalmar was careful not to peak too soon by overplaying the brilliance. Rather he deftly highlighted the less flashy moments as with the notable weight and resonance given to the first-movement coda.

Carlos Kalmar

The Un bal section went with notable Gallic grace. In the ensuing pastoral movement, woodwind solos were evocative even without being placed offstage, though here the music at times could have used more atmosphere and mystery.

The March to the Scaffold was put across with notable brassy swagger and the Witches’ Sabbath finale was aptly frenetic and exciting, ending the evening in a thrilling blaze of orchestral tone.

A superb launch to the summer music season, even with the lousy weather. Let’s hope for more cooperative skies for Mendelssohn’s Hymn of Praise this weekend.

Carlos Kalmar leads soloists and the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus in Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden and Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2 Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise) 6:30 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.