Grant Park Orchestra Closes Season with ‘Freude’

August 20, 2009

I must pay tribute to the total dedication of the Grant Park players and the skillful shaping and total control over both pieces by Kalmar, now in his ninth season.

When the Grant Park Orchestra traded in the acoustically-challenged Petrillo Bandshell for the Pritzker Pavilion five years ago, they were a good band but one incapable of performing such monumental works of the repertoire as expertly as they did for two weekends earlier this month.

The orchestra, under the guiding baton of Carlos Kalmar, played Gustav Mahler’s moving Ninth Symphony one week followed by Ludwig von Beethoven’s iconic Ninth Symphony last weekend. And, unlike most music I hear, these two performances are still echoing in my brain.

Was this because I had not expected playing of such a high caliber from a pick-up summer ensemble and was transfixed by the band’s expert execution? Or was it that I had heard so many performances of the Beethoven that I had become slightly jaded and did not think I could be moved so strongly? Questions aside, I must pay tribute to the total dedication of the Grant Park players and the skillful shaping and total control over both pieces by Kalmar, now in his ninth season (a real confluence of nines).

I brought high expectations to the Mahler 9 performance. Having heard interpretations played by Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic and Pierre Boulez with the Chicago Symphony, it takes especially fine playing to still impress. Yet I was moved and so was the Harris Theater audience which went burst from their seats following the final note with a standing ovation.

Some section entrances were slightly ragged and the third movement was less inspiring, but the second and fourth movement melodies were fervidly played and on a par with those two internationally-renowned orchestras. And at the end of the Beethoven last Friday, the audience erupted again and I heard one man exclaim, “Oh, my God” to the heavens.

Playing Beethoven’s 9th in an open air setting presents acoustical as well as other challenges. Yet, from my seat down front, I could hear soft passages distinctly and only one ambulance siren. (However, the performance on Saturday had robust siren accompaniment. I counted 7 separate siren incidents. Can’t some noise restriction be enacted around the Pritzker Pavilion area?)

The crowd, estimated at more than 10,000 on Friday evening, was silent enough to hear a cough or proverbial pin drop. Kalmar took control of both works from the first downbeat. He pounces like a cat to achieve special effects and shaped the dynamics throughout expertly. And he kept the emotional extremes in balance so that the music sounded properly stately.

Special praise must be paid to the Grant Park Chorus. From their first declamation of “Freude” (Joy) to the “Ode to Joy” finale, they were magnificent. Their voices boomed out but were absent any bombast. Choral director Christopher Bell deserves great credit for preparing the chorus so effectively. And bass-baritone, Jason Grant, and soprano Amber Wagner’s voices rang out with luster and command.

The Grant Park Orchestra gave its first performance on July 1, 1935 in a bandshell on 11th Street originally designed for the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair. Throughout its history, it has featured prominent guest artists such as jazz great, Benny Goodman, opera stars Beverly Sills, Mario Lanza and Marian Anderson, pianists Alfred Brendel and Van Cliburn, violinist Jascha Heifetz, conductors Daniel Barenboim, Mitch Miller and Lorin Maazel, who led the orchestra at age 11.

Today, the orchestra consists of 82 members. Up to one-third of the players come from the Lyric Opera orchestra. The other spots are filled by players from other symphonies and winners of the audition process. The orchestra receives 100-150 audition applications for each opening.

The programming for next season is still under discussion but one can expect an adventurous blend of traditional and seldom-heard pieces, along with new works such as Michael Torke’s commission this season in honor of the Burnham Centennial. The orchestra anticipates naming a new executive director next month to replace James Palermo, who did a great deal to build this band over 14 seasons and is now working his magic with the Colorado Symphony.

The Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus ended its 75th season spectacularly. The standing ovations at the final two weekend concerts were a fitting tribute to what is the nation’s only remaining free, municipally-supported, musical ensemble offering a full summer season of the finest classical music.

Tom Mullaney, About