Miguel Harth-Bedoya served as both the able conductor and enlightening tour guide for Friday night's unusual Grant Park Music Festival concert at Millennium Park, a lively and colorful multimedia journey down the Inca Trail.
His engaging sampler of seven short orchestral pieces – all Grant Park Orchestra debuts – took its title as well as inspiration from the vast network of pathways built during the Inca empire that connect Harth-Bedoya's native Peru to five neighboring South American countries.
He had the orchestra players dancing to a snappy Latin beat licked with fiery brass and sizzling percussion. The crackling energy of the music was cued to a handsome video presentation on the Jay Pritzker Pavilion's huge new screen. The fluid montage of images ranged from travelogue footage of Peruvian folk dancers, to quaint, 18th-century watercolors, to dazzling modern abstractions.
Too bad parts of "Caminos del Inka" (as the program was titled) degenerated into a literally disconcerting duet between symphony orchestra and helicopter.
Grant Park had obligingly pushed back its regular early-evening weekend curtain time to allow the crowds to disperse from Taste of Chicago across the way at the Petrillo Music Shell. But that wasn't enough to prevent the conclusion of rocker Robert Plant's set at the Taste stage from bleeding into the lush arrangement of "El Condor Pasa" that opened the Grant Park program
But the worst was yet to come.
A security helicopter employed by Taste of Chicago to police human traffic at the food-and-music fest circled overhead for what seemed like an eternity, its din all but drowning out the two most interesting works on Friday's program, Gabriela Lena Frank's "Illapa" and Osvaldo Golijov's "Mariel," both of which enlisted soloists from the orchestra.
The droning chopper fortunately departed the vicinity before the concert was over, but the lesson should have been clear to Grant Park officials: Move all festival concerts scheduled to take place during next year's Taste indoors to the adjacent Harris Theater, as they have done in past seasons but inexplicably stopped doing this time (save for the Aug. 2-3 program). Add extra performances, if need be, to make up for the difference in seating capacity.
Classical concerts in Millennium Park are prey to enough distractions without bringing on new ones.
What, then, of the actual music to be heard through the pesky helicopter obbligato?
Following a charming suite of 18th century Peruvian dances collected by a Spanish bishop and arranged for small orchestra by Harth-Bedoya, the conductor moved on to several interesting late 20th century pieces.
Folkloric impulses both ancient and modern echo through Ecuadoran composer Diego Luzuriaga's "Responsorio," with its insistent drumbeat and cross-rhythms piled atop one another.
"Illapa" is a 15-minute tone poem inspired by the eponymous Andean weather god, who in the work's central section whipped up a thunderstorm that unfortunately was no match for the man-made disturbance hovering overhead.
The soloist, principal flutist Mary Stolper, soldiered on, producing all manner of burbling, spiky sounds, some of them evoking the husky rasp of the god's bamboo flute. Delicate violin tremolos in the orchestra suggested the mist-shrouded Andean peaks.
Principal cellist Walter Haman was equally adept as he limned the elegiac lyricism of "Mariel," accompanied by soft strings and tolling chimes.
"Danza Fantastica," a pleasant, romantic pops piece by Chilean composer Enrique Soro, gave way to the Peruvian-born Jimmy Lopez's "Fiesta!," which ended the program proper in an explosive riot of Afro-Peruvian and techno rhythms, illustrated by splashing ocean waves on the screen. It's a knockout of a piece and it whetted one's appetite for "Bel Canto," the opera Lopez is writing with librettist Nilo Cruz on commission from Lyric Opera, and scheduled for premiere in December 2015.
Harth-Bedoya and friends sent the crowd home happy with the big-band samba beat of that old Xavier Cugat standard, "Brazil." The capable Grant Park Orchestra dispatched everything with remarkable aplomb, given the trying circumstances. Its splendid and hard-working team of percussionists, headed by Eric Millstein, deserved the Purple Heart for their amazing grace under fire.