Grant Park program a surprise success

July 21, 2013

By Andrew Patner, Chicago Sun-Times

A concert played both Friday and Saturday night at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park was a reminder of why the Grant Park Music Festival has become Chicago’s most exciting and committed summertime home for classical symphonic music.

On paper, the program of French and Swiss French music might not have appeared too compelling — the popular chestnut “Organ” Symphony by Saint-Saens; Frank Martin’s 1949 Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments, something of a connoisseur’s piece; and the very rarely played early Berlioz overture, “King Lear.” The conductor, Thierry Fischer, 55, was little known. Also Swiss, though born and initially raised in Zambia — his father was an engineer — he spent much of his career as an orchestral flutist before stepping in for an ailing conductor one night, sticking with it and now heading the fine Utah Symphony Orchestra in Salt Lake City.

Add to that Friday’s extreme heat and humidity which, while not preventing the performance, did require a program reordering and the insertion of a 30-minute heat recovery intermission. I could not attend then but was able to hear the live WFMT radio broadcast, was knocked out by its precision and mastery and knew that I could not miss Saturday’s concert.

Of course there are no prescriptions for what makes a successful conductor; plenty of people have what one would think would be great credentials and training for the experience. But Fischer certainly shows that deep knowledge of playing an instrument and understanding the life of an orchestra player from the inside does not hurt. Nor does playing for years under the major maestros Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Claudio Abbado.

Saturday’s more manageable but still summery weather conditions meant the 90-minute program could be presented as planned with the Berlioz overture preceding the Martin concerto and then the Saint-Saens as the big closer. Fischer made the case for the 1831 Op. 4 Berlioz and the Saint-Saens; he finds and illuminates structure in works either somewhat loose or too often taken lightly. And he gave the knowledgable support and direction that allowed the superb Grant Park wind and brass soloists to play the intricate but wholly appealing Martin work at the highest level. He conducts with both clarity and passion. Though hardly restrained, he is no showboat. His connection with the players was clearly two-way.

All seven soloists, most of them principal players — Mary Stolper, flute, Nathan Mills, oboe, Gene Collerd, assistant principal clarinet, Eric Hall, bassoon, Douglas Carlsen, acting principal trumpet, Jonathan Boen, horn, and Daniel Cloutier, trumpet — were simultaneously snake charmers and skilled braiders with their individual melodic lines and variations. Their life as colleagues made for an absolutely integrated presentation both with each other and the full orchestra.

If you had told me that I would voluntarily hear the 1886 Op. 78 Saint-Saens C minor Third Symphony with its crowd-pleasing organ sections even once this year — let alone two nights back to back — I’d have proposed a head examination. But Fischer sold this oft-played piece both to its many fans and its fair number of skeptics equally, and, frankly, better than I have ever heard the work live. Fischer believes in this work in the way that Daniel Barenboim believes in Wagner, and if he cannot make it more than it is, his attention to detail, his ability to pay attention to all vertical (harmonies and combinations) and horizontal (melodic and narrative) development make the piece as strong and original and rewarding as it truly is. Though playing only an electronic console, Chicago fixture David Schrader delivered the organ parts in full sync with Fischer.

Utah is lucky to have this conductor, and several Grant Park players who are members of that ensemble can you tell you so. Kudos to Grant Park for snaring him now. The players honored him with his own ovation when he tried to get them to stand a second time at concert’s — and difficult engagement’s — end. Let’s hope he’s back. Indoors across Michigan Avenue would be great, too.

Andrew Patner is critic at large at WFMT-FM (98.7).