Review: Grant Park festival draws to a memorable close

Classical Music Critic

Another season of the Grant Park Music Festival has come to a close, and it could not have happened on a more pleasant evening, as thousands filled the Pritzker Pavilion, the Great Lawn and other parts of Millennium Park.

GPMF artistic director and principal conductor Carlos Kalmar kicked off the festival’s concert with Franz Liszt’s 1882 composition “La Lugubre Gonola II,” in an orchestral treatment created by composer John Adams in 1989 under the title “The Black Gondola.”

It’s hardly one of Liszt’s greatest pieces, as it lumbers somewhat in the opening and closing. But Kalmar found the soothing, rocking motion of the music’s rhythms and made the most of the dynamic arcs, particularly in the central section that builds expertly to a powerful volume.

It offered a kind of programmatic counterpoint to what followed: “Harmonium for Large Orchestra and Chorus” by John Adams. The opening of Part I is a truly amazing fusion of orchestra and voice, beginning with a single pulsing note. The sound textures then become more layered and complex, eventually reaching a gripping fortissimo.

Adams writes beautifully for chorus, and the Grant Park Chorus (prepared by guest chorus director Donald Nally) was splendid. The text for the first section was “Negative Love or The Nothing,” a wonderful poem by John Donne.

Part II began with shimmering sound and the chorus had a smooth, soothing sound. Kalmar insured that the orchestra offered a warm blanket of color to support the voices, who first sang the text of Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” Adams created music with the right mood for Dickenson’s “Wild Nights” which flowed well from the previous poem. There was just the right sort of wildness to represent the joyous intimacy the text imagines. Yet at times it was impossible to understand the text, but the fault here lies entirely with the composer, as I can’t imagine any chorus being able to create a diction clear enough to communicate the word without destroying the right feel of the musical aspects of the score.

Adams also wrote Part II in a long-winded way that wears out its welcome, particularly owing to repetitiveness. Yet the straight-forward, crisp presentation under Kalmar’s sure direction had force until the very end.

After the intermission, the concert concluded with Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” The sinuous work by the winds was exemplary, and the brash assertiveness of the brass was spot on.

At times the strings seemed too pretty, too smooth and perhaps even too tentative. A raw and deliberate approach might have served the score better. However, there was good communication of the taut sections of the music, and the syncopation was deployed to good effect.

The audience was appreciative, and the loud applause was heavily spiced with hoots and whistles of approval. It was great that Kalmar took the time to acknowledge many of the fine musicians of the orchestra, who also were given warm and wild signs of appreciation as they took individual bows.

These final concerts are typically bittersweet. Kalmar has always programmed something special for the last concert of the year, which leaves listeners sad that the season is over. But it primes listeners for the next season, which is sure to provide splendid musical entertainment yet again.