Wednesday was a night for diehards at the Grant Park Music Festival.
First, those in attendance had to brave the 90-plus-degree heat, which bit a significant portion of the opening night crowds both in the Pritzker Pavilion and on the Great Lawn at Millennium Park. The musicians of the festival orchestra visibly smothered in their concert blacks, with bright shorts and sandals for the concert.
The evening’s bluster didn’t help either. High winds ripped sheet music from stands, blew program books and swayed a pair of loudspeakers dangerously several feet above the head of Carlos Kalmar, artistic director and principal conductor of Grant Park, for most of the evening.
But if soloist Michelle Cann won’t soon forget her debut at the festival, it’s probably not because of the weather. The pianist has become one of the most visible representatives of the music of Florence Price, who launched her career in Chicago and enjoyed rare institutional recognition there as a black composer. But as Cann told the Grant Park audience in a moving speech, although she’s been performing an authoritative new version of Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement (1934) for over a year now, she doesn’t ever performed Price’s music in the composer’s hometown.
We bet Grant Park audiences won’t soon forget Cann either. In her powerful rendition of Price’s concerto, Cann not only overcame the acoustic challenges of the Pritzker Pavilion stage: she navigated them with the grace and flexibility of a high jumper, her powerful fingerwork spelling out with detail his interaction with the orchestra. After a muscular exposition, Cann moved easily to the luscious, unaffected sincerity of the lyrical mid-section – with magnificent solos by oboist Mitchell Kuhn and cellist Walter Haman – and later still, to the intoxicating exaltation of an Allegretto. ragtime-like.
An extended standing ovation brought Cann back to the stage for an encore of Price’s protege and fellow Chicagoan Margaret Bonds: her “Troubled Water” fantasia over the witty “Wade In the Water.” Cann’s powerful rendition unified the five-minute set of variations into a monument of concerto-like breadth and grandeur.
Just as Price is in the midst of his own long-running reassessment, so is Richard Wagner, whose “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” excerpt followed the piano concerto. But the two composers evolve in directions as different as one might imagine. While Price posthumously carves out his place in the repertoire, Wagner, an ideologue who wrote bluntly about his own anti-Semitism, has remained a heavy cornerstone.
Quite the program boost, if you ask me. A common denominator seemed at least clear to artistic director and chief conductor Carlos Kalmar. Using his usual audience speech to praise Price’s concerto, Kalmar inadvertently provided what for years also served as Wagner’s defense: “There are only two kinds of music: good music and the other.”
Indeed, “Meistersinger” is not short of this. Much of its four and a half hours includes Wagner’s most bubbly and charming music, descriptors that would not typically share a zip code with his other operas. Coking together a kind of pseudo-symphony, Kalmar and the Grant Park Festival Orchestra performed the overture “Meistersinger” and three excerpts from Act III often performed together: the prelude, “Dance of the Apprentices” and “Procession of the Mastersingers”.
Despite occupying the coveted second half of the schedule, Kalmar’s “Meistersinger” ultimately proved mixed. The generally uplifting opening too often sounded directionless and limp with an anticlimax. The Act III snippets landed more convincingly, especially the rounded, polished prelude and the floating “dance.”
But any lackluster stage presence of this ‘Meistersinger’ was not the fault of the always-superb festival orchestra, who deserve special kudos for keeping their cool when the winds picked up again and sent more of a flying orchestra part during ‘Procession of the Mastersingers’.
Reversing the concert order convention, Kalmar began with the program real Mozart’s Haffner Symphony in D Major. Mozart composed the symphony at breakneck speed in 1782 after his father offered it for an eleventh-hour commission against his wishes. Kalmar also conducted this “Haffner”. But on Wednesday night, those Mach-1 speeds tended to erode the character of the symphony — especially in the Andante, which had little of the movement’s familiar suppleness and nonchalant lightness.
Unsurprisingly, the outgoing outward moves went better under Kalmar’s leadership. The Grant Park Festival Orchestra sounded startlingly decadent in the opening Allegro con spirito; likewise, piano passages in the Presto finale shone with incandescent intensity. It was not Mozart, a hyper-transparent Mozart.
Varied spectacle aside, kudos to Kalmar for a masterclass in keeping his composure on the podium from the start, when, mere bars in the “Haffner,” a gust ruffled the pages of his score. The conductor failed to conduct the rest of the first movement from memory without flinching.
Looks like Grant Park will be keeping those giant music videos handy for a while yet.
The Grant Park Music Festival continues until August 20; www.grantparkmusicfestival.com
Hannah Edgar is a freelance writer.
The Rubin Institute for Music Criticism helps fund our coverage of classical music. The Chicago Tribune maintains complete editorial control over assignments and content.