Grant Park musicians take delay in stride

June 17, 2013

By John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune

One of the things that makes going to outdoor concerts at the Grant Park Music Festival such a grand adventure is that you can never predict who will emerge victorious from the eternal struggle between mankind, mother nature and music.

The Grant Park Orchestra and principal conductor Carlos Kalmar were all set to play the opening program of the summer season last Wednesday evening at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion when the mammoth thunderstorm that descended on the entire area forced the Chicago Park District to shut down all city recreational facilities, including the festival venue at Millennium Park.

The cancellation, which was announced to patrons less than an hour before concert time, marked the first time in the festival's 79-year history when opening night had to be scrapped, said a Grant Park official.

Fortunately clear skies prevailed on Friday evening, and the only distractions were the usual obbligato intrusions of sirens, helicopters and stentorian birds. An estimated 9,000 listeners descended on the park grounds to catch an inviting program featuring the orchestra's first collaboration of the season with director Christopher Bell's hardworking Grant Park Chorus. The program was repeated Saturday night.

For the first festival weekend Kalmar chose a piece with broad popular appeal, the 1938 cantata Sergei Prokofiev drew from his soundtrack to the Sergei Eisenstein film, "Alexander Nevsky." It's a score ideally suited for outdoor performance, a splashy piece of Soviet wartime cheerleading dressed up as historical drama.

I will leave it to others seated farther back in the pavilion and on the Great Lawn to decide how effectively the Talaske Group-designed sound system captured the combined choral-orchestra sound. For one seated about a dozen rows from the Pritzker stage the largely acoustical sound felt quite comfortable, well blended if a shade dry and deficient in the lower frequencies.

Kalmar knows the only way to convey the full effect of this music is to play it full out, and he did. This is poster music painted in bright, primary colors on a broad canvas. Kalmar kept it pressing forward with a cinematic sense of drama. The opening pages carried an atmospheric sense of the Russian people suffering under the Mongol yoke. And Kalmar whipped up plenty of excitement in the famous "Battle on the Ice," never relaxing his rhythmic grip.

Even with a couple of low bass voices added to the chorus, it lacked the distinctively dark weight a group of massed Slavic voices would bring to sections such as the rousing "Arise, Ye Russian People." Still, the choral singing bespoke thorough preparation and left little to be desired in security of blend, fullness of sound and clarity of diction. The smooth integration of choral and instrumental sound was a further plus.

The Bulgarian-born Canadian mezzo-soprano Emilia Boteva sang the plaintive "Field of the Dead" beautifully, her voice lustrous and steady and blessedly free of the wobble often associated with Eastern European singers.

The classic American ballet scores Kalmar conducted on the first half reminded one that there is no more convincing champion of midcentury American orchestral works on any area podium.

Aaron Copland's "Billy the Kid" ballet suite dates from the same year as the Prokofiev cantata and is similarly populist in flavor, even if it employs real cowboy songs instead of the fake Russian folk songs found in "Nevsky." I admired the vigor and snap Kalmar's able instrumentalists brought to Copland's dislocated rhythms, along with his idiomatic feel for the music in general. The trumpet solo in the card game that preceded the gun battle was good enough to charm the pavilion's lusty resident songbirds.

I also liked the conductor's deftly balletic treatment of Samuel Barber's "Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance" (1946). Kalmar invested the lyrical first section with real intensity and kept the obsessive rhythmic ostinatos in sharp definition right through the final frenzy of orchestral activity. A tempting Grant Park season awaits, our fickle summer weather notwithstanding.