One promising beginning and one happy ending

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

It was an inauspicious evening for the opening of an outdoor festival. It had rained that day, and it remained overcast and gloomy well past dark. Yet the first concert of the 80th season of the Grant Park Music Festival had a decent-sized and enthusiastic crowd – a testament to the durable popularity of this free summer festival of music which takes place in the heart of downtown Chicago.

Artistic director Carlos Kalmar was on hand to direct the forces of the Grant Park Orchestra at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park last Wednesday night. The main work on the program was Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2 featuring Russian-American pianist Natasha Paremski.

Paremski brought both intensity and grace to her performance, easily moving from pounding passionate passages full of razzle-dazzle to flowing, feathery finger-work of delicate precision.

Kalmar and the orchestra were with her all the way, notably with splendid work by violin and cello soloists during the central movement, creating a gorgeous web of sound.

The audience was enthusiastic in their appreciation, and the young blonde pianist, resplendent in a black evening gown accented with thin white stripes and higher-than-high heels of cherry red, appeared to warmly return their appreciation.

Tchaikovsky’s “Francesca da Rimini,” a Fantasy after Dante, was also given a full-blown performance. The composer did not stint when he wrote his musical portrayal of Hell, and the Grant Park Orchestra was spitting fire and brimstone as they moved through the Inferno as imagined by Tchaikovsky.

The middle section, which recounts the doomed love of a young couple, was heartwarming, with Kalmar knowing how to draw out the romance and poignant beauty of the music.

The concert opened with “Tournaments” by American composer John Corigliano, a short piece written in 1965 but not performed until 1980, when the Louisville Orchestra finally gave it its premiere.

The entire concert was replete with big builds, big drama and big sounds and was a fitting introduction to a summer of music.

This year’s Grant Park Music Festival features a large number of in-demand guest artists, including violinists Gil Shaham and Christian Tetzlaff, pianist Stephen Hough, soprano Christine Goerke, bass-baritone Eric Owens, bass Shenyang and guest conductors Leonard Slatkin and David Robertson. The season continues through Sat., Aug. 16. For details, visit their website at grantparkmusicfestival.com.