Review: Grant Park Music Festival weathers the storms

Classical Music Critic

Weather was certainly an annoying factor during the first week of the 2015 Grant Park Music Festival. The mid-week opening night was cool and looked to be rainy, which kept some people away even though the evening remained dry. On the other hand, the first Saturday night performance of the season found the rain to be quite a problem.

Carlos Kalmar, the principal conductor of the Grant Park Music Festival, opened the season with a splashy little number by a young American composer. “Drip Blip Sparkle Spin Glint Glide Glow Float Flop Chop Pop Shatter Splash” was written by Andrew Norman (born 1979) for the Minnesota Orchestra in 2005 for its Young People’s Concerts. It lasts only five minutes — not much longer than it takes to recite its unusual title — and is full of color and whimsy. The composer gives different parts of the orchestra brief moments to shine as the various free floating ideas run by in a sometimes frenetic pace. It was both fun and a little silly, a perfect piece to get youngsters interested in orchestral music.

This was followed by Rachmaninov’s first piano concerto with Yevgeny Sudbin making his Chicago debut as soloist. He had a splendid legato and admirable clarity in the rapid, complex passages. While Sudbin played from a score, his page turning was artful and rarely distracting. There was effective communication between the conductor and the soloist, with Kalmar bringing out the urgency in the strings while the soloist excelled in drawing out the drama, leading to a pleasing conclusion to the first movement which had some listeners already applauding.

The middle movement found the pianist rather cool, and he offered a dainty and quiet reading. The finale saw both piano and orchestra brash and exciting in the loud moments, with lots of energy. Sudbin was expert in marching up and down the keyboard and he and the orchestra were rewarded by the audience when it ended.

Opening night concluded with Beethoven’s joyous 7th symphony. Kalmar put his own stamp on the piece, often giving great emphasis to tempo changes. There was strong work from the woodwinds, and the strings were glossy and full of the right amount of galumphing fun. The Allegretto had an endearing lamenting quality while the Presto emphasized the ragged rhythms. The galloping final movement was full of energy without loss of clarity, bringing the evening to a triumphant conclusion.

The following Saturday was the second performance of the second concert of the GPMF season and the weather simply refused to cooperate. Before the concert began, the rain had been spitting lightly and intermittently but was not significant enough to interrupt Mozart’s Overture to “The Magic Flute” which was pert and perky.

This was followed by the world premiere performance of Symphony No. 3, “Dream Songs” by Kenji Bunch (born 1973) who was present at the Pritzker Pavilion for the performance. The work is based on Native American songs and texts and is divided into three sections with a total of eight songs for orchestra and chorus. The opening “Song of Wandering” had strong male voices and ethereal sound from the harp. The brass and percussion added further power with the female voices contributing a lighter texture. “Dream Song” was in fact appropriately dreamy while “Let Us See” — which asked “is this real, this life I am living?” — was effectively mysterious.

There was a splendid swell of sound for the “Ghost Dance” while the performance of “The Warrior’s Vow” was marred by rain, causing audience members in the Pritzker Pavilion seats to lose all sense of decorum while they scattered about trying to find a spot where Frank Gehry’s huge metal ribbons adorning the top of the stage would protect them from the rain. The usual outdoor noise was augmented by a siren, a portent of something dramatic. But the performance went on.

“Only the Earth Endures” put sinuous wind music on display and highlighted Bunch’s skill with melody. And then something happened which I have never seen before. During the performance, a woman came out from the stage right wing and walked calmly up to Kalmar as he was conducting and spoke confidentially in his ear. A few moments later Kalmar cut off the chorus and orchestra and announced that the City of Chicago had instructed them to temporarily halt the performance so that listeners could take cover from the storm and protect themselves from possible lightning strikes.
After a drippy wait of less than half-an-hour, the concert resumed. Kalmar addressed the significantly smaller audience before beginning again, saying, “You’re the best audience there is.”

In spite of the weather, Kalmar and his forces put on a splendid performance of “Dream Songs.” It is a pleasing work but not one which is ground breaking, written in a mid-20th century style putting you in mind of Randall Thompson.

Unfortunately, this turned out to the end of the concert. The weather yet again intervened and the City deemed that for audience safety the performance had to end. This meant that Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 6 had to be placed on the shelf and left for some other time.

Nonetheless, the wet evening still yielded enjoyable music performed to a high standard which could be remembered fondly as members of the public made their way home in the pouring rain.