Grant Park Orchestra
Emmanuel Villaume, Guest Conductor
Andrew von Oeyen, Piano
By Lori Dana
For fans of Chicago’s greatest summer asset, this season’s Grant Park Music Festival has been a meteorological challenge. Our wildly variable weather has had faithful picnickers alternately bundled in blankets, huddled under umbrellas and fanning away the muggy heat, sometimes all in the same week. One is tempted to say that the season’s biggest quandary has been whether or not to believe the weather report when planning each evening’s concert attire. But that would be giving short shrift to the marvelous programmers of the festival. Lead by music director and principal conductor Carlos Kalmar, they continue to challenge and educate us with their deft combinations of popular favorites, bold new works and little known, but brilliant music rooted in cultural traditions outside of the North American lexicon. This weekend, listeners were treated to two evenings of French (and French-inspired) music, and finally some true Chicago summer weather.
Guest conductor of the program that also included works by Suppé, Mozart and Bizet was Frenchman Emmanuel Villaume. Already familiar to many Chicago opera fans from his inspiring work on recent Lyric productions of The Merry Widow, La Bohéme and The Tales of Hoffmann, the lean and sprightly Villaume radiated palpable joy on the podium, his fluid movements like that of a dancer as he lead the orchestra through the anticipation and bravado of Suppé’s A Morning, Noon and Night in Vienna. Though not a French composer (Suppé was born in what is now Croatia), this overture is part of an operetta he composed in the Parisian style, a response to the popularity of works by Jacques Offenbach, the composer of Hoffmann.) Paris also served as inspiration for Mozart’s Symphony No. 31 in D Major. Packed with signature high-energy melodies and exciting tonal contrasts, the “Paris” symphony in large part belies the young composer’s grief at his mother’s illness and death on the trip that produced the work.
The second half of the program featured American soloist Andrew von Oeyen’s rich and dramatic interpretation of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 22. In the spirit of the French master, von Oeyen tackled the daunting technicalities of the work with relative ease and dazzling style. As the sun dipped below the western skyline, the rousing tarantella of the final movement was punctuated by clattering helicopter blades and the distant wail of a siren that seemed to add to the transformative power of the performance. Even patrons on the lawn were brought to their feet in appreciation. A popular Italian folk dance, the tarantella also figured prominently in the evening’s finale, Roma (originally Roman Carnival) by Georges Bizet. Begun during his tenure at the Villa Medici in 1859, the opening movement invokes the theme of the hunt, with its brass fanfare and galloping rhythms. The scherzo and andante that follow create a vision of narrow streets, perhaps bustling with an early morning market, frozen momentarily in a dreamy golden sunrise. The magic of Villaume’s conducting style was evident in the swirling dance of the final movement, as the orchestra seemed not to be following the maestro, but moving together with him as one graceful body. An enamored audience responded with a second, prolonged ovation as fireflies on the Great Lawn reflected the rising stars.
Jay Pritzker Pavilion images by Venus Zarris