CHICAGO — To hear first-rate classical music in the summertime, all Chicagoans have to do is venture downtown to Millennium Park, a 24½-acre oasis nestled between Michigan Avenue and Lake Michigan. The crown jewel of this green space is Pritzker Pavilion, a sleek, ultra-modern amphitheater designed by architect Frank Gehry. It serves as the home of the 87-year-old Grant Park Music Festival, which continued its 2022 summer season Aug. 10 with the kind of off-beat program that is typical of this series.
Without the financial constraints of a fall-to-spring schedule, summer festivals are able to take more chances with their repertoire. Adventuresome programming has long been part of Grant Park’s modus operandi, and Carlos Kalmar, who took over as principal conductor in 2000 and added the title of artistic director 12 years later, has, if anything, put more emphasis on it. The festival regularly offers world premieres (22 during Kalmar’s tenure so far).
Featured this night was the world premiere of Christopher Theofanidis’ Concerto for Flute and Orchestra, which was also part of the festival’s Diverse American Voices Series. Here, that meant a performance featuring Marina Piccinini, who has emerged as one of the world’s preeminent solo flutists. Her appearance was no lark. It was set to coincide with the opening of the 50th annual convention of the National Flute Association in Chicago, and many attendees were in the audience.
In an introduction to the piece, Piccinini spoke of her shared admiration with Theofanidis of Rumi, a 13th-century Persian poet. The Dallas-born composer’s 2005 work for soloists, chorus, and orchestra, The Here and Now, commissioned by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, is based on Rumi’s poetry.
Piccinini quoted a few stanzas of the poet’s writing by memory and said that the unofficial title of this concerto is actually Universe in Ecstatic Motion, a line from the excerpt she recited.
There was no darkness, no shadows, in either the the music of Libby Larsen or the Franck Symphony in D minor that bookended the concert, and that held true for this concerto as well. Although its five-movement structure, two parts of which were devoted to cadenzas, is unusual, there is nothing especially revolutionary or boundary-bending about the work. And that is clearly the intention of Theofanidis, a professor at Yale University, who was in attendance.
Indeed, he employs a bright, insistently tonal language with only the slightest hints of dissonance. A highlight is the slow fourth movement, which opens with a string chorale and continues in a gentle, introspective fashion with deft use of muted trumpets. Overall, the music is often quite pleasing and beautiful, but it isn’t always especially memorable. That said, it is a terrific showcase for the flutist, and that alone might ensure it future performances.
In the rarefied world of premier flute soloists, Piccinini has clearly taken the place of such celebrated masters as Jean-Pierre Rampal, who died in 2000, and James Galway, even if she has not yet attained their level of fame. Starting with the concerto’s opening cadenza, with its runs and pauses, staccatos and slurs, titters and totters, Theofanidis puts the soloist through challenging paces, calling on virtually every flute technique imaginable. Piccinini handled it all with unflappable command, playing with unshakeable intonation, spotless technique, and a pristine, singing tone — a superb performance overall.
Kalmar makes a point of programming historical compositions, often by well-known composers, that have been unfairly forgotten or marginalized. That approach was in rich evidence Aug. 10 in a program that did not feature one familiar work. The closest thing to a concert staple was Franck’s Symphony in D minor, which, as Kalmar pointed out in his introductory remarks, was frequently heard on orchestral programs in the early and mid-20th century but has fallen out of favor in recent decades for reasons that are unclear.
Despite its supple lines and intoxicating affect, one strike against this work might be that it is not as overtly or identifiably “French” as some other Galiic works in the classical canon. It is, after all, a symphony, a form that is more associated with Germanic music.
But the diminution in popularity of this 1889 symphony — Franck’s only mature work in the form — certainly has nothing to do with the quality of the work itself, which is brilliantly constructed and offers abundant aural pleasures. Highlights include the compelling Allegretto second movement, with its introspective English horn solo (ably realized here by Anne Bach), and catchy, spirited main theme to which Franck returns again and again in the third movement, building to an exhilarating climax.
Kalmar had a nice feel for the music, bringing a real sense of sweep and flow to the first movement, nuanced dynamic shadings to the second, and a Gallic spirit of verve and fizz to the third. After leading this orchestra for 23 years, he has developed an obvious rapport, which was clear from the involving, responsive playing he drew from these musicians from orchestras across the country on their summer break. The only knock on the performance, and virtually all of the outdoor concerts that Grant Park does, is the unavoidable amplification and ambient noises that make it hard to fully appreciate the subtlety of what is actually happening onstage.
The concert opened with a selection that is part of the festival’s Diverse American Voices Series, which spotlights composers and performers who are women and people of color. Titled Deep Summer Music, it is the work of Libby Larsen, a spunky 71-year-old composer from Minneapolis, who is a co-founder of what is now known as the American Composers Forum. Always a well-respected composer, Larsen has been nonetheless overshadowed somewhat by newer voices in recent years, and a strong argument can be made that her abundant output is overdue for rediscovery and renewed appreciation. Although this 1982 piece only runs about seven minutes, it makes a case for her writing.
Certainly living up to its title, this shimmering, floating music, with its flitting woodwind trills and swooping strings, fully captures the timeless, contented feeling of a hot, late-summer day. There is no attempt to mimic bird calls or bubbling brooks. Instead, the calming, unhurried music is much more about a general experiential feeling. There is a long history of classical works that attempt to evoke nature, and Larsen’s holds its own in that trajectory. Indeed, it is surprising that the piece is not more frequently performed at summer festivals, where it seems ideally suited. As with the Franck symphony, Kalmar and the orchestra were completely at one with the work, effectively delivering its evocative, gentle spirit as well as the delicate tonal blends it requires.
Kalmar’s tenure with the Grant Park Music Festival is set to end in 2024, which will be his 25th season with the organization. His departure will obviously mark a major turning point for a festival with which he has been so identified, and it will be fascinating to see whom Grant Park taps to succeed him and the direction it takes going forward.