Music and nature in balance as 78th Grant Park Music Festival gets underway

June 14, 2012

by John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune

Compared with the torrential downpour that had greeted attendees at last year's opening concert of the Grant Park Music Festival, the mild, clear weather Mother Nature provided for the launch of the Grant Park Orchestra's 78th summer season, Wednesday at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, was like a walk in the park.

A capacity crowd of around 11,000, according to official estimate, took advantage of the balmy lakefront temperatures to settle back on the Great Lawn and beneath the soaring steel sails of the Frank Gehry-designed pavilion at Millennium Park to take in the early-evening, intermission-free concert directed by principal conductor and artistic director Carlos Kalmar.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago City Council and the Illinois House of Representatives had declared Wednesday Grant Park Music Festival Day, nice official encouragement for a 10-week season of popular symphonic and choral favorites mixed with more adventurous musical fare.
Per custom, Kalmar's opener stuck to Romantic musical staples of the sort his orchestra can be depended on to prepare thoroughly on but a few rehearsals. The performances were of a quality to match those of its more glamorous downtown rival, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which still has two weeks of subscription concerts to perform under its resident southpaw pitcher, Riccardo Muti, before its winter season comes to an end.

Kalmar is saving American music for the weekend concerts, which are to kick off the 50th anniversary celebration of the Grant Park Chorus. On Wednesday, he devoted half the bill to music by Edward Elgar – the familiar "Pomp and Circumstance" March No. 1 and the less-often-heard Cello Concerto.

The gathering majesty of the march – that quintessential piece of June graduation music – found the pavilion's state-of-the-art, surround-sound system doing its job in fine, unobtrusive fashion, lending a pleasing warmth to the strings and a natural balance to each choir, qualities that carried through the performance of Dvorak's Symphony No. 8 at the end of the program.

The gifted German cellist Alban Gerhardt, who delivered a searching and deeply felt account of the Elgar concerto, has been a welcome soloist on the lakefront series at least since 2004, when the then-35-year-old cellist and Kalmar introduced the work to Grant Park audiences as part of the brand-new pavilion's gala opening weekend.

On Wednesday he did not go in for the sort of emotive intensity other, more famous interpreters have offered on behalf of this autumnal masterpiece. But what he offered instead – sovereign technical command, a burnished and varied sound, and a remarkably seamless cantabile – carried an eloquence just as satisfying. Small wonder Millennium Park's avian population chimed in so vociferously.

From the authority with which Gerhardt shaped the long, recitative-like cello introduction that leads into the wistful opening movement, through the skittering scherzo to the deceptively jaunty finale, the cellist was in his musical element. Kalmar's accompaniment was just as sure-footed and idiomatic, ever mindful of the soloist's needs.

The Dvorak G major symphony, Opus 88, seemed an ideal choice for a halcyon summer night at the park. The music's openhearted lyricism rested comfortably on the orchestra's fine string section, while the chirpy evocations of the Czech countryside brought out the best in the woodwinds. A trumpet crack at the beginning of the brass fanfare that ushers in the finale was the only blemish on a performance that Kalmar paced comfortably and his musicians played with skill and understanding.

The Grant Park Orchestra, Carlos Kalmar conducting, will be joined by the Grant Park Chorus for concerts that include works by Liszt, Handel, William Schuman and the world premiere of Michael Gandolfi's "Only Converge: An Exaltation of Place," 6:30 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park, 100 N. Michigan Ave.; free; 312-742-7638,