Grant Park Music Festival opens to rainy weather and sturdy audience

Carlos Kalmar celebrates 20 years with the Grant Park Music Festival. (Photo courtesy of Patrick Pyszka)

By M.L. Rantala
Music critic

Music in the out-of-doors is a chancy thing. You never know when fog or hail or cold or wind will intrude. For the opening night of the 2019 Grant Park Music Festival, it was rain that fell on the parade.

Nonetheless, there was a smallish crowd of stalwarts who enjoyed the entire concert on Wednesday night at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park as Carlos Kalmar led the Grant Park Orchestra in an intermission-less concert under rain and clouds.

The highlight of the concert was a scorching rendition of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No, 1 featuring violinist Benjamin Beilman. The soloist and orchestra were a well-oiled team, with the violin singing above the ensemble yet always attuned to it.

Beilman, a suburban Chicago native, is a plucky player with superb technical skills who can draw out richly toned lines or create brittle tension. He ably navigated the trickiest parts of the score and was able to change moods as suddenly as the composer required.

The give and take between soloist and orchestra was nicely done, both playing with assurance, with Beilman adding exciting ornaments. It was a splendid performance.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2, his shortest symphony, was given lavish attention by Kalmar and his forces. The subtitle “Little Russian” refers to the fact that the work draws on three Ukrainian folk songs. The orchestra was in its element, creating compelling music that meandered beautifully in and out of the folk tunes.

The concert opened (after the obligatory performance of the national anthem) with “Jubilation” by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, the first woman to be awarded a doctoral degree from Julliard and to win a Pulitzer Prize in music. “Jubilation” is only about six minutes, yet it is full of flavor and interest. The brass fanfares were bracing, and the music meandered in a pleasing way, full of tang and energy.

This opening night had some special elements. Lori Lightfoot, the new mayor of Chicago, made brief opening remarks on stage and was met with great approval. This season also marks Kalmar’s 20th year with the orchestra.

A fascinating addition to the concert was the use of a huge high definition screen at the back of the stage that broadcast live images of the musicians as they played. It was a real treat to be able to see parts of the orchestra not usually easily visible (that is, most of the musicians who are not at the very front). The camera-work is more dynamic and varied than that used at Ravinia.

But there were disconcerting elements to the projection scheme. These were screens that projected information and not live coverage of the players. We learned that people were hungry during the Russian Revolution and that the Paris Opera House is an imposing building. It’s strange to disrupt the music with such things that might be projected before the music starts.

The GPMF has time to work these bugs out, as the screen will only be used for a small number of concerts this year (Jul. 4, Jul. 10, and Aug. 14).

It can’t rain all summer, so check out the schedule of this free music festival at www.gpmf.org.