Don’t rain on my classical Music Festival

David John Pike and Sara Jakubiak with the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus, Carlos Kalmar conducting. – Fareine Suarez

The Grant Park Music Festival is once again underway. Last Wednesday’s opening night was drenched by rain and the second of its two weekend performances had very wet moments as well. Nonetheless, the shows went on.

The main event on Saturday night was A Sea Symphony (Symphony No. 1) by Ralph Vaughn Williams. It was a glorious realization of a sprawling work featuring orchestra, chorus, and two soloists.

Carlos Kalmar, artistic director and principal conductor, engaged two young singers for the solo spots, and they acquitted themselves well. Canadian baritone David John Pike offered a carefully calibrated performance, contrasting strong and forceful declarations with muted and caressed phrases. He fully captured the grandeur and glory of the music.

American soprano Sara Jakubiak evinced both power and passion, and wowed the audience with silvery-tinted high notes.

Kalmar deftly weaved through the music, achieving splendid balance between the orchestra and chorus. The latter, wonderfully prepared by chorus director Christopher Bell, were in great form and executed their large role in the symphony with flair and wide ranges of color. From their very first, “Behold the sea,” they were fantastic.

The Grant Park Orchestra anchored the proceedings with a firm and steady blanket of support.

It was a memorable performance which gripped the audience even in the late sections when rain intruded on the evening, as if to emphasize the water theme of that night’s music.

That concert began with the “Four Sea Interludes” and “Passacaglia” from “Peter Grimes” by Benjamin Britten. “Dawn” was haunting and moody while “Sunday Morning” had spirit. “Moonlight” had some stodgy moments but “Storm” was effective and even scary at times. The concluding “Passacaglia” was intense, with shimmering calm near the end, particularly in the strings. All this gave way to swirling excitement in the conclusion.

Opening night for the GPMF was a difficult one, as rain – sometimes pouring – made for an unpleasant situation for listeners. It was so bad that attendance was sadly paltry. The Festival estimated attendance that night at 2,000 but my own estimate is about half that.

Yet the show went on, as it always does, unless rulings from the City require otherwise.

The program opened with the Festival Overture by Swedish composer Hugo Alfven (1872-1960). The GPMF is known for its willingness to program lesser-known works, but this choice was somewhat disappointing. The music is unabashedly popular in style, but not particularly interesting. Yet Kalmar and the orchestra worked to find all the vim and fancy in it.

The main work on the program was Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto featuring Vadim Gluzman as soloist. He gave a sparkling performance, crackling through the music with ease and bringing great warmth to the music.

He was unruffled when a sudden and startling feedback buzz intruded briefly, and was always in clear command. Together, he and the orchestra served up romantic sound, the sort which swims happily in the mind for days after.

The concert closed with the music of Gershwin. “Porgy and Bess, a Symphonic Picture” (arranged by Bennett) was pleasing enough, but somehow less than fully satisfying. This is undoubtedly not down to the performers, who were perky and energetic, but due to the lack of singing, which is at the heart of this Gershwin masterpiece.

The opening night rain was a constant intrusion and while the organizers knew long before the concert started that it would rule the evening, seemed entirely unprepared. They quickly ran out of programs in the small space in front of the stage protected from the rain, where a majority of concert-goers were concentrated. And those without paid tickets to this premium space were invited shortly before the concert started to move into the remaining dry seats. When paid customers showed up, in one case just before the Tchaikovsky (that is, about 15 minutes after the concert had started), nonpaying listeners were booted out, even if it meant separating couples or entire families. The ushers appeared unable to handle the situation, adding tears to the raindrops.