Grant Park Orchestra creates a sonic rainbow after storm

Yolanda Kondonassis performs Ginastera’s Harp Concerto with the Grant Park Orchestra at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. (Photo by Norman Timonera)

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Once again, the Grant Park Music Festival proved to be stronger than the worst weather. Last Wednesday, a sudden downpour drenched the Pritzker Pavilion and sent the audience scrambling for umbrellas, blankets, and locations under cover.

As the wind intensified, the glass doors to the Pavilion’s stage were closed to protect the Grant Park Orchestra’s valuable instruments from the blowing rain. The storm lasted about 20 minutes, and when the rain stopped the show went on with the majority of the audience back in their seats.

While the audience may have been rather moist, they could not have been displeased with the performance. The orchestra, led by guest conductor Emmanuel Villaume, offered a spirited performance of music both familiar and unusual.

The concert opened with the Suite from “Mother Goose” by Maurice Ravel. Here is a collection of pleasing vignettes based on fairy tales, originally written for piano and then transcribed for orchestra by the composer in 1911. The French-born Villaume brought French sensibility to the music, beginning with the brief yet utterly charming “Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty.” This tells the story of the Good Fairy who stands watch over a young princess in her enforced sleep, and the orchestra played it with shimmering beauty.

“Hop o’ My Thumb” is a Tom Thumb story, describing in music how he drops bread crumbs in order to find his way home again, but is distressed to discover when he is ready to return that birds have eaten them all, leaving him lost. This was followed by “Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas,” featuring exotic turns in the melody. “Conversations of Beauty and the Beast” had marvelous sound from the contrabassoon as the beast and lilting lines from the upper winds which represented Beauty. The work closed with a lovely rendition of “The Fairy Garden.”

Next up on the program was the Harp Concerto by Alberto Ginastera featuring Yolanda Kondonassis as soloist. The piece was commissioned by Edna Phillips, the harpist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, in the 1950s. But by the time the work was ready, she had retired and a new harpist had to be found to perform in the premiere slot.

Kondonassis was an able and exciting soloist, who was engaging with the sweet sounding arpeggios and glissandi and fierce with the more rugged portions of the work. The opening found the orchestra taut and tense with the harpist entering with dramatic harp runs with deep, rich tone. Her first solo section displayed the beauty of the harp’s sound.

Villaume reveled in the complexity of the second movement, with strong, almost defiant sound from Kondonassis. Her cadenza was sparkling, and she drew out all the excitement with seeming ease. The final movement was energetic with fine work by the horns and trumpets. Villaume ensured there was a strong pulse as the music blasted to a triumphant and explosive conclusion.

There was no intermission scheduled for this concert, but after the harp concerto a representative of the Grant Park Music Festival took the stage to announce that the audience would have a “reward” of a 20-minute intermission. There were audible groans from wet folks who undoubtedly worried that the rain would return and thus didn’t find this unexpected delay a reward at all. In fact, the intermission had to be added because the delay at the beginning of the concert meant that union rules required that the orchestra be given a rest. Why the audience wasn’t told the truth that the orchestra needed a break is a mystery.

The concert concluded with Bizet’s Symphony No. 1 in C major, written when the composer was only 17. By this point in the evening, Villaume looked very rumpled from the heat, rain, and humidity. His black shirt, unbuttoned at the collar, stuck to his body and looked as if he’d slept in it a night or two. But the weather didn’t affect his work, as he again brought his French expertise to a great French symphony.

The opening Allegro was frisky and effervescent. The orchestra had bright sound and the rhythms were bouncy. The Adagio featured gorgeous playing from the oboe and beautiful legato in the strings. The Scherzo was lively and again featured superb work from the woodwinds.

The final movement was a treat. The orchestra tripped along at a rapid pace, but always offered clear articulation. It was both fast and fun.

The audience, still rather wet, was well pleased. It was worth waiting through the rain for yet another fine evening at the Grant Park Music Festival.

For more information on the free concerts of the GPMF, visit gpmf.org.