By Lawrence A. Johnson
We rarely appreciate the great things in life at the time. It is only after they have passed into the receding distance that one realizes their excellence and significance.
So on the penultimate weekend of this year’s Grant Park Music Festival, let’s take a moment to celebrate the golden age of classical music that Carlos Kalmar, Christopher Bell and the Grant Park Orchestra & Chorus have brought to Chicago audiences over the past few years. two decades. No other classical organization in Chicago has managed to match the festival’s deft lineup – artfully balancing rarities and new music with repertoire favorites – or the ever-successful results consistently served up over a tight ten-week summer season. .
Friday night’s unlikely pairing of a Shostakovich concerto and a choral work by Ralph Vaughan Williams delivered the finest lakeside concert of the summer and a musical highlight of the year. There’s a rehearsal on Saturday night – cancel your plans and go.
Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his Violin Concerto No. 1 in 1948, but put it in a drawer until a future date when he hoped Stalin’s cultural commissars would take their foot off his neck. The work will have to wait seven years and after the death of the communist dictator to receive its creation in 1955 with David Oistrakh as a soloist.
The result is the best of Shostakovich’s six concertos, and one of his finest achievements, a work that begins in the deepest sadness and ends in dazzling triumph.
In his opening remarks, Kalmar mentioned that while Shostakovich’s concerto was a statement against Stalinist repression, it eternally serves as a symbol of artistic freedom. This is true, and not only against other oppressive regimes; today’s high-tech oligarchs all seem too eager to suppress free speech and speech when it goes against the interests of the politicians they are currently currying favor with .
Within its larger historical and political setting, Shostakovich’s concerto is also a masterful musical achievement, alternating dark and gloomy passages with passages of blinding virtuosity, culminating in what is the most exhilarating finale of any concerto for violin.
While it may be true that the greatest works are better than they can ever be played, Christian Tetzlaff’s mesmerizing performance on Friday night with the Grant Park Orchestra seemed to deliver all the elements of this fascinating, multifaceted work. .
Perhaps the first solo bars of the opening Nocturne could have been more subdued, but the violinist was soon in the zone. Tetzlaff played this research music with free, sometimes shocked expression, probing a deep vein of research rumination. Scherzo’s galumphing provided a fitting contrast with Tetzlaf digging into the thorny accents with an incisive bite and Kalmar whipping up frantic energy in the faster second theme.
The Passacaglia is the heart of the work and here Tetzlaff was supreme. From the removed opening lines, he explored the dark depths of this dark, inner music with a dark viola-like tone and a range of widely-tiered dynamics. The soloist’s muted and focused expression gave the impression of a protagonist searching for a way out of the darkness.
This conflict reaches a peak of intensity in the cadence that bridges the slow movement and the finale. For once, this prolonged single-player conflict truly felt like the life-and-death struggle it was meant to be. After increasingly complex and restless bursts of soloing, the violinist finally emerges with an assertive statement of the finale’s main theme, centered on the composer’s DSCH musical motif.
The Burlesca was exhilarating, not just for the instrumental fireworks, but for conveying a cumulative sense of liberation and energized confidence in the face of dark forces, with Tetzlaff and Kalmar picking up the tempo and speeding up to a triumphant coda.
Support from Kalmar and the GPO was on par with their virtuoso soloist. The only slight flaw was that the festival had not provided a celesta for a key solo moment in the first movement. (The passage was played on the harp instead.)
The well-deserved cheers and standing ovation quickly brought Tetzlaff back for an encore. The interpretation posed by the Sarabande violinist of Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor brought a refreshing balm after the frenetic coda of the concerto.
Ralph Vaughan Williams’ dona nobis pacem is less well known today than the work it inspired a quarter of a century later, that of Britten Requiem of war. Written in 1936 at a time of shadows of the Great War and a new war looming, dona nobis pacem is, unfortunately, still relevant, especially with Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine.
Yet this deeply felt work is every bit as masterful and powerful as Britten’s, a strongly worded anti-war statement that ultimately manages to end in hopeful optimism. The five movements of the work, performed without a break, alternate between settings by Walt Whitman, with biblical verses and a speech by John Bright warning that England is entering the Crimean War.
From the ethereal interpretation of the title of the work by soprano Maeve Höglund (“Grant us peace”) in the first seconds, one had the feeling that this performance would be a remarkable experience. The solo soprano’s angelic sound was immediately swept away by the full chorus of “Beat!” To beat! Drums!” sung with vehement and violent intensity by the ensemble.
The Grant Park Chorus, conducted by Bell, delivered one of its finest outings of recent seasons – imposing and sonorous yet refined and perfectly blended, bringing touching intimacy as well as emotional fervor.
Höglund was inspired in the final section, as well as in her repeated repetitions of pleadings from Dona nobis pacem. Her final, plaintive swoon over those words brought the performance to a moving end, conveying a sense of hushed blessing.
Nathan Berg provided a fine contrast as another soloist, wielding his heavy bass-baritone with biblical authority and crystal-clear enunciation in his solo moments.
Kalmar pulled it all together, who led a powerful yet intimate and touching performance, with the 35-minute work unfolding in a seamless arc.
The program will be repeated at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. gpmf.org
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