Grant Park Music Festival Opener Doesn't Miss a Beat

June 12, 2009

With Hough at the piano, orchestra gives every sign of memorable summer to come.

With its fifth full summer at Frank Gehry's ever-enchanting Jay Pritzker Pavilion and trellised Great Lawn (the festival moved to Millennium Park mid-season in 2004), the classical concert series easily draws 10,000 people even on a cool weekday evening, as it did at Wednesday's opening night. On weekends, the numbers multiply.

Often transition periods expose an institution's weaknesses. When the festival's highly respected and very hands-on general and artistic director, James W. Palermo, left in the spring to head the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, it was reasonable to wonder how things would fare in his absence and with a search for a successor just begun.

At Grant Park, Palermo's success, and that of principal conductor Carlos Kalmar and chorus conductor Christopher Bell, resonates in an organization that continues to fire on all cylinders and musical results that put Grant Park at the top of outdoor summer programs.

Kalmar has worked so closely with the Grant Park Orchestra for the last nine seasons that it really remains his home ensemble despite the plum position he added five years ago as music director of the Oregon Symphony. Closing Wednesday's program with the Ravel orchestration of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" (to be repeated Saturday evening) clearly demonstrated the uniform strength and quality that Kalmar and Palermo built up together across sections and principals' chairs. New assistant concertmaster Ilana Setapen, just 26, made a memorable debut in the first chair Wednesday. In September, she also starts as associate concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra -- a fine addition to Midwest rosters.

Is there a more elegant and unflappable pianist than Stephen Hough? In any setting, in any repertoire, the British player can make the greatest concertos of the Romantic tradition full of life and power without even a whiff of vulgarity. And from the first bars of the Tchaikovsky B-flat minor first concerto (complete with evening ambulance-siren obbligato) to the last (complete with return of the ambulance theme), Hough gave the festival a standard that it will surely work diligently and happily to meet over the next 10 weeks.

Andrew Patner,