Regina Carter heads up a wonderfully eclectic program at Grant Park

June 23, 2011

by Andrew Patner, Chicago Sun-Times

Under artistic director Carlos Kalmar, the Grant Park Music Festival is the home for musical omnivores in the large and phenomenally diverse audiences and in the array of performers and guests on the stage of the Pritzker Pavilion.

And omnivores with taste, it should be added. Variety is the rule at Grant Park, but so is quality in both programming and execution.

Take this week alone: Wednesday night saw violinist/MacArthur fellow Regina Carter make her debut with the Grant Park Orchestra in a 2009 Violin Concerto written for her by another African-American artist, composer-pianist Billy Childs. After Kalmar led the orchestra in Duke Ellington’s late ballet score “The River” (1970), Carter and the four other members of her band Reverse Thread took the stage sans orchestra for 30 minutes of her remoldings of world music from her CD of the same name.

This weekend, the Uruguayan-born Kalmar whose family was from Austria, will lead a program on Friday and Saturday of music from Uruguay, Venezuela, Brazil, Mexico and Argentina, ranging over the past century.

The concert Wednesday’ might have seemed a hodgepodge or a politically correct-fest on paper. In performance, every moment enchanted and each work surprised. That all of the artists appearing radiated deep commitment was part of the story, but the works also offered unexpected depths. The 30-minute Childs concerto is a a memorial to those killed, on whatever “side” in the Iraq war; it’s a highly effective piece of music and a challenging invocation of the “Dies Irae” (“Day of Wrath”) hymn from the Latin mass.

Carter, 44, whose background is equally from jazz and classical music, offered long lines that gave a mother’s quiet mournfulness in the first movement “Elegy” and her unanswered cries in the second.

For its part, Ellington’s “The River” has been a motherless child. Also a half-hour work, and in nine distinct parts, it was written for choreographer Alvin Ailey, who set it on American Ballet Theatre. ABT found it too “jazzy” and later the Ailey troupe saw it as too balletic. Major orchestras have largely ignored the work, but it can be a hoot.

Ellington’s comments on it in his memoir make it clear that that’s one of the things he wanted it to be. The “story” of an inquisitive baby confronting the universe (and, as universes do, one that encompasses love and violence and sex), it rollicks and finds great fun in all parts of the orchestra. As he always does with American music, Kalmar made you think he had grown up with this piece.

Some of the jazzheads in the crowd had clearly come for Carter’s closing set, but they seemed riveted by the Childs and orchestral Ellington. Members of the orchestra crowd were seen bopping to Carter’s seductive remaking of tunes, harmonies and techniques from Mali, Madagascar and the Jews of Uganda.

Supplementing her regular bassist Chris Lightcap and drummer Alvester Garnett with kora player Yacouba Sissoko and accordionist Will Holshouser, Carter and her violin led a unique and attractive blending of sounds. You wanted to hear more — and they seemed to want to play more — than the 30 minutes they were allotted. And you wanted to get to know this gifted, inquisitive and generous artist herself.