Krzysztof Penderecki's enticing program at Grant Park

July 17, 2011

by Alan G. Artner, Special to the Tribune

The Ravinia Festival once offered "composer's evenings" on which such luminaries as Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copland presented their own music and, sometimes, works by others. Given the guests' stature, the concerts were occasions, despite inadequate rehearsal and difficult outdoor conditions.

Friday night the Grant Park Music Festival took a page from that book. Krzysztof Penderecki, Poland's most famous living composer, celebrated his country taking over the presidency of the Council of the European Union with an enticing program of the contemporary and classic.

This evening was an occasion, too. But it went beyond the performances of Penderecki's Concerto Grosso No. 1 for Three Cellos and Orchestra and Beethoven's Third Symphony. It marked the return of a significant international figure who had a history here.

Penderecki's "Paradise Lost" received its world premiere at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1978, and he presented his Symphony No. 7, "Seven Gates of Jerusalem," with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2000. Their romantic gestures troubled listeners who recalled his radical works from the 1960s.

However controversial the stylistic changes, they have not greatly affected the rumination at Penderecki's core, which is central to the First Concerto Grosso. For more than half an hour the three cellos – played Friday with heartfelt commitment by Julie Albers, Kira Kraftzoff and Amit Peled – have plaintive, inward-looking music that is shaken by militant tramping in the orchestra. Still, over the course of six continuous movements, romantic introspection is never shattered, and at the work's end there is the sense of being back at the beginning, which is as satisfying for some as it's frustrating for others.

If we expect authority from composers in their own music, we also anticipate special illumination from composers performing works by forebears. It did not come in Penderecki's "Eroica." Clear and always sonorous – especially in the winds – the account was only moderate in energy and soft-edged. Not as marmoreal as Hans Werner Henze's embalmed account with the CSO, Penderecki's nonetheless had a similar excess of reverence.