Grant Park Orchestra triumphs in Millenium Park

Classical Music Critic

Last Wednesday, just as the heat wave began to lose steam, it was a perfect night for an outdoor concert. The Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park had gentle breezes which wafted the attractive scent of the foliage nearby. It was the perfect accompaniment to the music of the Grant Park Orchestra.

The big work on the program was the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony. From the opening, guest conductor Thierry Fischer presided over controlled drama. The agitation in the strings was hypnotic and the entire first movement had well-controlled dynamics, developing the foundation for the entrance of the organ in the next movement.

This symphony can be problematic in outdoor performance. The poco adagio features low organ sound, often in long-held chords. The organ’s dark sound can be hard to discern in an environment full of lots of ambient noise. In compensation, on this night the low strings were redolent and persuasive. The violins in this movement were irritatingly thin at times, but eventually they found a sweetness of sound.

The scherzo was peppy and full of the promise of excitement. Fischer’s awkward and goofy podium gestures were often distracting, he looking at times more drunken than possessed by artistic passion.

But the big bold colors of the concluding movement lent the performance a glittering quality. David Schrader on organ had intensity and created crashing sound. There were slashing phrases in the strings and regal calls in the brass.

Frank Martin’s Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments was a fascinating look at a mid-century work not often found on concert programs. Composed in 1949, the concerto features flute (in this performance, played by Mary Stolper), oboe (Nathan Mills), clarinet (Gene Collerd), bassoon (Eric Hall), trumpet (Douglas Carlsen), horn (Jonathan Boen) and trombone (Daniel Cloutier).

The first movement was intriguing, featuring splendid sound from all the players but particularly Hall on bassoon. The middle movement, an adagietto, had engaging dotted rhythms and a nice building of tension. A pretty flute solo, expertly realized by Stolper, saw the violins delicately tip-toe underneath her music. The concluding movement had gleaming trumpet from Carlsen as well as a potent timpani solo. The complex allegro seemed a bit muddled for a time, but eventually came together for a satisfying conclusion.

The concert opened with the overture from “King Lear” by Berlioz. The ending was bright, emphatic and full of vim. Unfortunately, owing to a frustrating experience on the CTA, my trip to the park took over one hour and 45 minutes from Hyde Park, so that I missed most of the Berlioz. Color me frustrated.

The Grant Park Chorus will visit the South Shore Cultural Center, 7059 S. South Shore Dr., next week with a concert of exciting a cappella music. Under the title “Songs of Praise and Passion,” Christopher Bell, the award-winning director of the chorus, will conduct a free concert that begins at 7 p.m on Tuesday, July 30.

The program takes place inside the magnificent building which once housed the South Shore Country Club, so listeners need not worry about rain.

The concert’s anchor will be three movements from the glorious Vespers by Rachmaninoff. Chicago’s own Stacey Garrop will be represented on the program with her “Sonnets of Desire, Longing and Whimsy.” Other composers whose music is featured are Parry, Miskinis, Mawby, Tormis and Sametz.

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