Listeners feast on Belshazzar at the opening of the Grant Park Music Festival

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Summer has arrived and with summer comes the Grant Park Music Festival (GPMF). It was a pleasant evening on the 13th of this month when Carlos Kalmar walked on stage to conduct the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus for the opening night of the 84th season of the festival. In addition to the large audience in the seats at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion and in the Great Lawn at Millennium Park, opening night was broadcast live on WFMT and streamed on wfmt.com.

After a few minutes of speechifying by some folks who aren’t musicians of any kind, Kalmar, who serves as artistic director and principal conductor of the GPMF, walked to the podium with a big smile on his face, clearly ready and eager for another season of ten weeks of free concerts.

The concert opened with the national anthem. It used to be that a decent performance of the Star Spangled Banner was enough to demonstrate sincerity, but times have changed. It has become necessary at the GPMF (and some other places) that the musicians themselves must stand while playing the anthem. The peculiarity of this is heightened when you see cellists trying to keep their instruments steady as they are perched on the seat of a chair. But the audience didn’t seem to mind at all, and sang along, some with full-throated enthusiasm.

The concert opened with a short work by Sean Shepherd, an American composer born in 1979 in Nevada. “Magiya” (which the composer describes in his program notes for the composition as meaning a specific Russian sense of magic, or a kind of magic “that often gets no explanation or justification, a sort of ‘normal,’ everyday magic”) was written in 2013.

This eight-minute work employs a big orchestra, including a large raft of percussion, particularly tuned percussion. It does at times capture a magical sense, but it always seemed far more like Las Vegas than St. Petersburg, more Liberace than “Petrushka”. Sometimes the long, large phrases seemed like big gulps of music disconnected from a central idea, but for the most part it held the listeners’ attention. Shepherd himself took a bow at the end of the performance.

Next up was the Symphony No. 99 in E-flat Major by Franz Joseph Haydn. One of the so-called London Symphonies (because they were composed in London or composed in Vienna specifically for a London performance), Symphony No. 99 is the first Haydn symphony to include clarinets.

Kalmar gave the opening slow movement an ingratiating quality, the music was sweet and smooth and always sounded pretty. The rapid section was enjoyably frisky. The second movement was also characterized by attractive sound.

The hymn-like theme of the third movement was nicely realized by the orchestra, which enveloped the music in velvet. The all-woodwind section was pleasing. The final movement featured clear articulation, even when the tempo reached a rollicking pace. It was a good, solid performance, even if the music never quite caught fire.

The concert concluded with William Walton’s “Belshazzar’s Feast,” the high point of the evening. It is an oratorio based on four scenes from the Bible: the captivity of the Israelites in Babylon, the grand feast in Belshazzar’s court, the handwriting on the wall and death of Belshazzar, and the jubilation of the Israelites when they are freed.

Bass-baritone Dashon Burton served as soloist, and offered a marvelous performance. He had heft and he had clarity. His phrasing and diction were admirable and his tonal quality was rich and appealing.

The Grant Park Chorus, prepared by Christopher Bell, was magnificent. The work opened with the crisp and precise singing of the men that instantly grabbed your attention. Throughout, the choir had both wonderful balance and a splendid depth of sound.

Kalmar coaxed fine work out of the orchestra, which provided great color to the dramatic story. It was a solid way to open the season.

The GPMF continues through Aug. 18 at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park. Tonight the orchestra performs Schubert’s Symphony No. 3 along with works by Roussel, Nielsen, and Griffes. The Dvorack Cello Concerto is on the program on the 29th and 30th, featuring cellist Johannes Moser. The popular 4th of July concert (conducted by Christopher Bell) will include Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”

There are a few concerts that take place away from the Pritzker Pavilion. One of those is on Jul. 19, when the Grant Park Chorus travels to the gorgeous South Shore Cultural Center.

Please note that bags are now searched before you can reach the pavilion or lawn, so add extra time when planning to attend a concert at the festival.

For more information on the GPMF, visit gpmf.com.