Grant Park Music Festival - Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, June 20, 2012 - CONCERT REVIEW

June 20, 2012

by Lori Dana, Chicago Stage Review

There is simply no better way to celebrate the summer solstice in Chicago than sitting in the verdant canyon of Millennium Park, surrounded by the architectural marvels of our skyline and the lush sounds of the Grant Park Symphony. As the Grant Park Music Festival kicked off its second week, music director and conductor Carlos Kalmar led an expanded ensemble in what was billed as a program of “youthful music”. Youthful referred to the ages of the composers whose work was showcased that evening: Don Juan, a 24 year old Richard Strauss’ homage to the legendary Spanish lothario, Benjamin Britten’s Piano Concerto, Op. 13 written when he was only 25, and Mozart’s beloved Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K. 551 Jupiter (the last of his career) composed at the age of 32.

Despite the sweltering heat, the Great Lawn teemed with families and happy groups of every description, and the general sense of restlessness created by the hot, swirling wind seemed to extend to the musicians as they struggled a bit with the careening opening of the Strauss.  A strident horn section was brought back into line by the strings in the middle of the piece, and as the cacophonous Michigan Avenue traffic slowed to a hum, the orchestra settled in, the sprightly interplay of oboes against a backdrop of horns and basses tracing the feminine themes of Don Juan’s amorosas. A stormy crescendo seemed to bring Strauss’ tone poem to a close, but it abruptly broke off with a shiver and then slipped away.

The sense of disequilibrium brought about by the conclusion of Don Juan was countered by the crisp opening of the Britten piano concerto. The orchestra, having found its feet, engaged in a sparkling dialog with pianist Steven Osborne. His powerful, intuitive playing riveted audience attention as the piano leapt across the dissonant orchestral background with abandon. A sense of calm relief followed the evening cool as it finally crept across the lawn and the second movement. A dark swooping waltz gave way to a quiet impromptu punctuated by glimmering piano cadenzas that faded away like fireflies in the twilight. Britten’s concluding flourish was as close as an orchestra gets to a brass band.  This lumbering march seemed to owe more than a little to Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice as it swung back and forth from apprehension to amusement.
After the challenging Britten concerto, Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony almost seemed like a soothing after-note. But the fact that its form is familiar should not diminish the brilliance of this music, and Maestro Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra (back in its usual configuration for the second half of the program) did not disappoint. Their spirited performance brought out all the genius in the young composer’s sublime final effort.

This concert was a fine example of GPMF’s creative programming.  The scope of the program encompassed works of the Classical, Romantic and Modern eras, and though many in the audience undoubtedly came for Mozart, in the course of this performance they were also introduced to two perhaps lesser-known, but no less outstanding pieces. Speaking strictly for the CSR crew – we love our Mozart, but Steven Osborne and the GPO’s Britten rocked our world.