Grant Park Orchestra and Carlos Kalmar hit it out of the park

June 13, 2012

by Andrew Patner, Chicago Sun-Times

Riccardo Muti wasn’t the only Chicago music director pitching before a full house Wednesday night.

While the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s artistic leader was throwing out the first ball for the Cubs-Tigers game at Wrigley Field, Carlos Kalmar, artistic director and principal conductor of the Grant Park Music Festival, didn’t have to worry about a trademark sixth-inning collapse by the home team.

Kalmar instead presided over a successful opening night before 11,000 classical music lovers — 4,000 in the seats of the Pritzker Pavilion and 7,000 packing the Great Lawn at Millennium Park.

He didn’t have to worry about the usual opening-night rainout, either. Clear skies and cool temperatures made this a perfect evening to launch the festival’s 78th season of free, municipally supported concerts in one of the loveliest urban settings around.

The only real surprise was that Kalmar, now in his 13th Chicago summer and a usually adventurous programmer, went with a rather steady selection of late Romantic repertoire, saving his eye-openers for later in the summer.

Everything was well-executed, as is Kalmar’s way. He and the Grant Park Orchestra have one of the fastest rehearsal-to-performance turnovers in the business; they know each other so well that their efficiency quotient is off the charts. With so much unusual and intriguing fare to come, why not offer up late 19th and early 20th century classics from time to time?

Alban Gerhardt, the German cellist now in his early 40s, has been a festival favorite during Kalmar’s tenure, and he did not disappoint in Elgar’s late-career 1918-19 Cello Concerto. The work holds the full range of possible dynamics, emotions and tempos, but Gerhardt, with Kalmar right with him, never gave in to sentimentality for a moment. A strong technique and an intelligent analysis were literally and figuratively at his fingertips.

Kalmar loves Dvorak and knows how to deliver the Czech master’s work. A season highlight will be rare performances of the composer’s little-known cantata “The Spectre’s Bride” with the orchestra, Grant Park Chorus and vocal soloists for the festival’s closing concerts Aug. 18-19. Wednesday held a rich performance of the 1889 Eighth Symphony fully aware of the variety the work contains and with more than a few premonitions of the symphonic output of Gustav Mahler that would follow the same year.

Like Muti, Kalmar believes in the otherwise nearly abandoned tradition of the overture or other brief pieces on a program. It was a pleasure to hear Elgar’s 1901 “Pomp and Circumstance” March No. 1 played with both strength and sensitivity — and with neither a ballplayer nor a commencement student in sight.