By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic
The young New Zealand-born conductor Gemma New returned to the Grant Park Music Festival in Millennium Park Wednesday night after her successful debut last year, serving as a last-minute replacement for a scheduled conductor with a family emergency.
This time she had something from her native country in her back pocket: The concert opened with a short work by New Zealand composer Douglas Lilburn (1915-2001), a winner of the Percy Grainger Prize.
Lilburn’s “Aotearoa Overture” (1940) is an airy, lyrical piece that the program notes tell us takes its name from the Maori name for New Zealand and means “land of the long white cloud.” It has pleasing melodies as well as nice texture. New drew out the expansiveness with a relaxed touch.
This eight-minute work doesn’t break any new ground, and in fact had several moments that put you in mind of Sibelius. An immediate comparison was possible, with the Sibelius Symphony No. 2 being the third and final work on the program.
Additionally, “Aotearoa” also serves as a potent rebuke to all those writers who insist on ascribing the Finnish landscape or climate as strongly influencing Sibelius. Not only could a New Zealander write similar music, but the work was written in large part while Sibelius was in Italy. He spoke of it not as a description of his country or its climate but rather said, “My second symphony is a confession of the soul.”
From the outset New displayed a good sense of the pulse of the music. She achieved a fine balance of sound, except at the beginning of the second movement when the basses were nearly inaudible. The brass had just the right amount of prominence.
New offered an unhurried approach to the symphony and knew how to draw out a sumptuous sound, particularly in the upper strings.
Between the Lilburn and the Sibelius was the Piano Concerto 9 No. 2 in A Major by Franz Liszt. The soloist was Kirill Gerstein, a pianist born in the Soviet Union who studied jazz at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Gerstein brought clear articulation to the concerto, with cat-like fleet agility. He clearly enjoyed the flashy moment, and had the flair of a pixie, notably at the top of the work’s range.
New led the orchestra in solid and attractive support and expertly navigated the various changes in mood and tempo. It was a pleasing performance and many in the seats near the stage stood to honor the pianist and the rest of the performers.
Immediately before GPMF concerts one member of the orchestra or chorus speaks briefly to the audience, serving as a sort of ambassador for the festival. For this concert the speaker was Hyde Parker Wilbur Pauley, a bass in the Grant Park Chorus. A multi-talented singer who appears equally comfortable on the main stage at Lyric Opera as well as Wrigley Field (he recently gave a wonderful performance of the national anthem before a Cubs game), he gave the audience a smile before the music began, having donned a boater hat and making a joke about a double-parked yacht.
The Grant Park Music Festival continues through Aug. 18. This week Carlos Kalmar leads the orchestra. Tonight’s program features works by Dvorak, Wagner, Strauss, and Tchaikovsky and begins at 6:30 p.m. at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. On Friday and Saturday, Kalmar conducts Haydn’s Mass in B-flat Major (Theresa Mass) with soloists including Janai Brugger. These concerts take place in the Harris Theater (205 E. Randolph St.) and begin at 6:30 on Friday and 7:30 on Saturday.
All GPMF concerts are free. For more information, visit www.GPMF.org.