Tchaikovsky and Bolcom at the Grant Park Music Festival

Dennis Russell Davies conducts the Grant Park Orchestra with soloist Kelley O’Connor. – Norman Timonera

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

American Dennis Russell Davies was the guest conductor at the Grant Park Music Festival this past weekend, presiding over two performances of the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 and William Bolcom’s Symphony No. 4, “The Rose.”

The Tchaikovsky 5 is one of those popular symphonies often found on festival schedules. But that doesn’t mean it must be pedestrian.

In fact, Davies conjured up an exciting performance that offered a thoughtful, well-detailed expression of something familiar. It was fresh and glorious.

From the very opening, Davies ensured that there was always solid upholstery from the orchestra, even when the sound was soft. He was particularly apt at coaxing depth and dark hues from his players for the brooding, melancholy elements of the symphony.

Davies drew out the contrasts in mood, tempo, and volume with detailed attention, so that the changes were subtle and seamless. The musicians reacted to his careful ministrations with both skill and artistry. By the time the first movement was well under way, you knew it would be a fine evening of music.

The Andante cantabile was full of the romanticism for which Tchaikovsky is loved, with big sweeping phrases and creamy yet clear legato. The winds and brass were particularly appealing, helping to layer the passion.

The upper strings were lovely in the third movement’s rapid passages, always deliberate and never rushed. There was splendid punctuation and lots of punch.

The finale had all the drama you could wish for from a Tchaikovsky performance, and Davies gave each of the composer’s ideas his full attention. The conclusion was more than satisfying, and the audience rewarded Davies and the orchestra with big applause.

After the intermission, works by an American composer took up the second half of the program. William Bolcom, who turned 80 years old earlier this year, was in the audience along with his wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris. They were on hand to hear Bolcom’s 4th Symphony (1986) as well as the conclusion to his 5th symphony (1990). In both cases, it marked first performances by the Grant Park Orchestra.

Bolcom is well-known for his writing for voice (many of his vocal works were written for his wife), and Chicago opera fans have seen three world premieres of Bolcom operas at Lyric Opera of Chicago: “McTeague,” “A View from the Bridge,” and “A Wedding”. In all three cases, Lyric called upon Dennis Russell Davies to conduct. So it was exciting to have a conductor with extensive knowledge of the composer to bring Bolcom’s music to life.

Bolcom’s Symphony No. 4 is subtitled “The Rose,” and the second of the two movements of this 35-minute work includes a setting of Theodore Roethke’s poem of the same name.

The first movement of the Symphony No. 4, headed “Soundscape,” is stormy and agitated, and Davies drew out the craggy, restless music with great commitment.

But the most important and most interesting ideas are in the concluding section, featuring mezzo-soprano. Kelley O’Connor was the soloist, appearing in a long and luscious red dress and bare feet.

O’Connor offered solid sound but was never afraid to be subdued and understated. Her voice was clear and persuasive with admirable diction. Much of Bolcom’s writing for voice here is in that mezzo range which gives the soloist a splendid opportunity to show off richness of voice and depth of character. O’Connor did this and more.

The symphony is weighted down at times, however, by asking the soloist to speak rather than sing, and this contributed a dullness to the proceedings, rather like “a needle piercing the ear” (to quote Roethke).

The concert closed with the final movement of Bolcom’s Symphony No. 5 (“Machine”) which also saw Davies on the podium for its world premiere nearly 30 years ago. It is about four minutes of big sound, big splashes, rushing passages and full-out excitement. Davies and the orchestra brought the evening to a close with this enjoyable big bang.

The Grant Park Music Festival continues through Saturday, Aug. 18. Most performances are at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.

Upcoming soloists at the festival include soprano Janai Brugger, pianist Kirill Gerstein, percussionist Colin Currie, cellist Pablo Ferrandez, and violinist Paul Huang.

Near the end of the festival, artists from Lyric Opera’s Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center will perform Menotti’s “The Old Maid and the Thief” led by Carlos Kalmar.

For more information, visit www.gpmf.org.