Kalmar, Grant Park Orchestra wrap 80th season with resounding Ravel and a Bolcom premiere
After a summer that began with several rain-drenched concerts, the Grant Park Music Festival’s final program of its 80th anniversary season could hardly have enjoyed more glorious weather Friday night with 70-degree temps, a cloudless sky and light breeze off the lake.
The main order of business for this program—to be repeated tonight—was the world premiere of William Bolcom’s Millennium: Concerto-Fantasia for Orchestra.
Commissioned by the Grant Park Music Festival, Millennium–in addition to reflecting the Millennium Park locale–is a kind of quick-hit musical Baedeker Guide to the orchestra’s development over 400 years, cast in five connected sections without pause.
The opening “Introitus” starts with primitive beginnings, here painted in irregular timpani strokes and rattlesnake-like percussion. Other instruments join in and timbres coalesce, leading to “Rockets” where the pounding timpani and showy bravura reflect the late-18th-century Mannheim School and its popular effect of fast and brilliant upward string flourishes (the “Mannheim rocket”). The Romantic era is represented by “Dreamscape: The Love Dream,” where a lyrical violin solo, well played by Jeremy Black, is taken up by all the front-desk principals. The soaring music for string quartet builds to a climax.
The reverie is broken (“Rude Awakenings”) with a rhythmic trumpet motif and edgy chords that segue into an uneasy stillness with a Mahler-esque horn theme against sustained violins. A ticking clock-like transition leads to the final section (“A Conclusion, for Now”), with the sense of time accelerating once again. After aggressive fast music punctuated by dissonant chords, the tempo slows and the music ends quietly with shimmering strings and a hopeful rising theme for harp.
A colleague clocked Millennium at 15 minutes—about a third shorter than the program indicated—yet the work feels right at this length. The music is pure Bolcom—quirkily iconoclastic with restless, dynamic energy, and scored with ease and panache with brief moments in the spotlight for several Grant Park principals. Kalmar and the orchestra gave Millennium a fizzing and hugely energized sendoff with the composer joining them on stage to share in the applause.
Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe was the closing work of the program and the Grant Park concert season. The beautiful evening on Chicago’s lakefront could hardly have provided more fitting al fresco ambiance for Ravel’s sensual ballet with its pantheistic celebration of nature and love between the title shepherd and nymph.
Kalmar gave us the full Maurice, the complete 50-minute ballet with chorus rather than just the standard Suite No. 2 (Has anyone ever actually heard the Suite No. 1? Does it really exist?)
Grant Park’s artistic director and principal conductor opted for quickish tempos and a fluent, more incisive approach than many. What dreamy languor may have been sacrificed was made up with dramatic acuity and a taut cohesion in a work that, for all its passing beauties and scoring mastery, can become rather episodic without dancers and visual counterpoint.
Kalmar built the final scene with cumulative momentum, the concluding “Danse generale” reaching a peak of sonic force and Dionysian intensity with orchestra and chorus in full cry. With a chirping avian adding apt ad libitum contributions to Ravel’s pastoral tableaux, the Grant Park Orchestra members delivered one of their finest outings of the summer across all departments—with sweet-toned violin solos by concertmaster Jeremy Black and Mary Stolper’s exquisite flute playing a standout among the sensitive and atmospheric woodwinds. Christopher Bell scrupulously prepared his Grant Park Chorus, and the singers delivered magnificently with their moments of wordless vocalise, evocative and impassioned as required.
The evening led off with John Adams’ Tromba lontana. Written for the Houston Symphony in 1986, Adams, characteristically takes an apposite tack in this concise “Fanfare for Orchestra.” As suggested by the title (distant trumpet), Tromba lontana centers on a quiet yet insistent minimalist pulsing. Though lightly scored and with mostly low dynamics there was no lack of virtuosity in the athletic performance led by Kalmar, with David Gordon and Billy R. Hunter, Jr. lending nimble bravura in their duo trumpet roles.
Before the concert, festival executive director Paul Winberg recognized two retiring Grant Park Orchestra members, each of whom have logged over 45 years with the orchestra.
Michael Green joined the Grant Park Orchestra as a percussionist while still a junior at Northwestern in 1969. He was appointed timpanist in 1973 and served 46 seasons with the Grant Park Orchestra, the longest tenure of any musician in the ensemble’s history. Green also served as principal percussionist of the Lyric Opera Orchestra.
Michael Geller joined the Grant Park Orchestra in 1970 and became principal bass in 1974. Geller was a member of the orchestra for 45 years, in addition to holding the same position with the Lyric Opera Orchestra.