Carlos Kalmar and Mahler 9—Close to a Miracle at Grant Park

August 10, 2009

Lighting struck this weekend when Kalmar led the orchestra in performances of one of the most challenging works in the repertoire, Mahler's 9th Symphony.

Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra don’t even know the phrase “rest on their laurels.”

The hard-working and ever-innovative downtown Chicago summer team are wrapping up the Grant Park Music Festival’s 75th anniversary season and the principal conductor’s 10th year here with a typically unusual program of adaptations of Italian compositions on Wednesday and two nights of Beethoven’s great Choral Symphony No. 9 this weekend along with Christopher Bell's outstanding Grant Park Chorus and a promising quartet of young American singers.

But even these highly intriguing concerts will have a hard time competing with the lightning that struck this past weekend when Kalmar led the orchestra in performances of one of the most challenging works in the repertoire, Mahler’s 1908-10 Ninth (and final) Symphony, indoors at the Harris Theater before packed houses and with hundreds of would-be concertgoers turned way each night.

The rest of the city might have been focused on some indie rock shows down the street in Grant Park, but the several thousand fans of fin-de-siècle Viennese angst and yearning had come to see what these local forces might do with a work so closely identified with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and a long roster of internationally renowned conductors.

The answer, at least on Friday night, was an astonishingly great deal. From the first muted and rocking sounds of the opening Andante comodo (comfortably flowing) movement through the heartrending slipping away into the softest sounds of the closing Adagio, 80 minutes later, Kalmar demonstrated an understanding of this piece, and especially its structure, its pacing, and its inner pulse, that one normally associates with conductors with decades more experience than the 51-year-old Uruguayan-Austrian maestro. And the orchestra -- in a work that demands lengthy passages of great cohesion and then turns to expose individual sections and players for minutes at a time -- it is no left-handed compliment to say that it has not a weak link in it today. Throughout, the audience sat in rapt attention recognizing that we were observing, and even participating, in a psychological, emotional, and even philosophical journey as well as a musical and artistic one. Only more remarkable when one considers that this was the first time this piece was played by or at Grant Park.

How does such an evening happen? You need of course an excellent orchestra and also an inspired one. You need a conductor with insight and authority who also holds the orchestra’s respect. For all of these factors we can thank Kalmar who has built and shaped this already fine ensemble into one that rivals many a major full-season symphony orchestra and who, without ego, tantrums, or stunts has won not only the respect but the love of his players. To have an audience -- and an ever-growing one at that -- made up entirely of people who wish to be there -- no one attending out of social obligation -- is a part of setting the mood and the aural tension. Add to this a sense of civic pride and accomplishment -- yes, the world is falling apart, yes, Lollapalooza has bumped us out of Millennium Park this weekend, but dang it! we’ve got a free concert of the Mahler 9th that’s supported by our city and our park district and our neighbors and ourselves -- and you have not only a recipe for something quite near miraculous but also something that exists nowhere else in the world.

Andrew Patner, Sun Times