In the sweltering heat of Wednesday evening, the Grant Park Orchestra gave its only outdoor performance this week before retreating to the Harris Theater Boundaries to avoid Lollapalooza’s disruption this weekend. The program saw Grant Park players hit their stride with director Carlos Kalmar after a patchy start to the summer following their prolonged hiatus from the pandemic.
The evening opened with that of Debussy Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, the 1894 premiere of which Pierre Boulez claimed to be the time when modern music was born. Kalmar opted for a particularly spacious approach to Debussy’s famous score, which effectively emphasized its static qualities, even though it sometimes prevented an organic unfolding. There were some great times when time seemed to stand still, though more active parts – including the lush climax – felt too tight. Solo flute Mary Stolper tuned her sonorous tone to the opening languid flute solo, and the contributions of other Grant Park principals were on the same level.
More flute music followed with Anthony Trionfo as soloist in the Flute Concerto No. 2 in E minor by Saverio Mercadante (1795-1870). In his opening remarks, Kalmar compared Mercadante’s fate to the portrayal of Salieri in the 1984 film Amadeus, pointing out how rarely every Italian’s music is played today. The proposed work, written when Mercadante was in her late teens, was unfortunately not the best argument for her rehabilitation. While the three standard movements are quite enjoyable, their appeal is shallow and just adequate as a solo vehicle.
Trionfo was a game and a colorful protagonist. Gaining considerable attention after winning the top prize at Young Concert Artists International Auditions in 2016, Trionfo is enjoying a flourishing career as a soloist and advocate for inclusion.
He has an assured technical mastery of his instrument, and a tone with a solid, silvery core. While some virtuoso moments in the Allegro maestoso opening felt insecure, with Trionfo rushing past the full-string accompaniment, he and his colleagues eloquently sang the iterations of his second lyrical theme.
There were more problems in the Largo: a few missed notes and wandering attacks from the soloist, little sense of dialogue between him and the supporting strings, pitch problems in the accompaniment and a wandering ensemble in the final bars. Particularly in the absence of compelling musical material, such elements must be firmly in place.
Performance recovered well for the closing Rondò russo, with Trionfo lending liveliness and buoyancy to the dotted rhythm theme and dispatching his demonstration moments with flair.
The concert ended with another example of youth in Symphony No. 2 in A minor by Saint-Saëns. Written when the composer was in his twenties, the 23-minute work has academic quality and clearly shows the young Frenchman working to find his compositional voice. The symphony is pristine and inventively orchestrated, but probably would have been completely forgotten if its composer hadn’t continued to do bigger and better things.
The opening Allegro marcato begins with a declamatory phrase arpeggiated in thirds which develops during the movement. This theme does not seem particularly conducive to melodic development, but Saint-Saëns gives it an ingenious contrapuntal treatment, made incisive by Kalmar and his colleagues on Wednesday.
The Adagio which follows is laconically brief, almost an intermission, with a hesitant opening of strings then joined by the English horn in a melancholy melody, well sung by the alternate of the season Margaret Butler and the strings. A playful Scherzo follows, littered with quirky and punchy accents that Kalmar emphasized with force. The final Prestissimo, a 6/8 gallop, brought the work and the performance to a frenzied conclusion.
The Grant Park Orchestra performs at 6.30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays at the Harris Theater, featuring Haydn’s Symphony No. 8 in G major (“Le Soir”), Intermission, and Rodion Shchedrin Carmen Suite. This program will also be broadcast live. grantparkmusicfestival.com/
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