Beethoven Symphony No. 4
Grant Park Music Festival
June 21, 2017
By Lori Dana
After an inaugural week that saw the Grant Park Music Festival’s opening night performance of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto all but rained out, the second week of the festival kicked off with a breezy, temperate evening perfect for picnicking and enjoying an al fresco concert. The crowd on the Great Lawn reflected the ease of the day, with clusters of retirees, young families and couples enjoying the cool grass and their shared repasts. Two relatively unknown works inspired by poetry introduced the Wednesday program. Richard Wagner’s Overture to Goethe’s Faust, and American composer Aaron Copland’s lyrical paean to the works of Emily Dickinson, a suite of eight songs for soprano and orchestra that featured the festival debut of Chicago favorite Susanna Phillips, comprised the first half of this superbly nuanced performance by the Grant Park Orchestra under the direction of Carlos Kalmar.
A dark piece depicting a despondent Faust (the protagonist of German legend whose personal dissatisfaction leads him into a pact with the Devil), and perhaps also reflecting Wagner’s personal situation at the time of its composition — on the run from creditors and living a pauper’s existence in Paris — the overture begins with ominous rumblings from the tuba and double bass. A bright, feminine theme played by the flute barely keeps the desperate bass undertones at bay, and then abruptly stops. A storm of strings in the central section of the piece creates an almost vocal chorus that builds quickly and dramatically before the lighter theme appears again briefly, in the form of a sylph-like oboe passage. It soon disappears into Wagner’s dark final chords, a fading expression of Faust’s ultimate demise.
Copland’s Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson for Soprano and Orchestra, while also contemplative, radiates a certain American optimism and humor. Based on the work of our country’s most famous and reclusive female poet, the songs come to life via the collaboration of orchestra and voice. Susanna Phillips is an American soprano who first endeared herself to Chicago audiences as a member of the Ryan Opera Center, and later in leading roles at Lyric Opera, and as a frequent soloist with the Chicago Symphony. The clear, honest quality of Phillips’ voice perfectly conveyed Dickinson’s graceful directness of language, and navigated Copland’s abstract score with ease. In a red column gown and visibly pregnant, Phillips’ dark hair flowed about her shoulders as effortlessly as did her voice above the orchestra, creating just the right blend of the earthly and the ethereal. It is easy to see why she is now in demand in opera houses and at musical events all over the world. The choice of Copland’s Eight Songs was an insightful one for Ms. Phillips’ Grant Park Music Festival debut.
For years, the festival has been at the forefront of progressive classical music programming, and Maestro Kalmar’s thematic and instructional directions are often easily discernible. However as with this concert, they are often less obvious. Little known pieces born of adversity and steeped in pathos is how one might describe the common threads of last Wednesday’s program. The final piece of the evening, Beethoven’s rarely performed 4th Symphony, was an apt example. Composed between the musical giant’s revolutionary “Eroica” symphony and his rock star opus, Symphony No. 5, the 4th Symphony was conceived on a summer break away from French occupied Vienna in 1806. If Mozart and Beethoven created a baby, it would sound like the 4th Symphony. With its bouncy opening theme described by maestro Kalmar (with tongue firmly planted in cheek) as “Beethoven Light”, the opening Adagios featured violins and woodwinds tip-toeing merrily (Mozart) over a solid bass foundation (Beethoven). The peaceful closing of the second Adagio was made more poignant by contrasting birdcalls emanating from the park and wailing sirens fading away in the streets beyond the trees. In the third movement we begin to hear a more familiar Beethoven. Melodies that repeatedly build and recede, sprightly themes contrasting with bold rhythmic changes and dramatic harmonic shifts as the movement builds to its conclusion. In the final Allegro the orchestra is rocking out as the composer’s signature contradictions in key and tempo return full force, creating a dynamic and delicious conclusion to another compelling evening under the stars in Millennium Park.
(2017 Grant Park Music Festival runs through August 19 at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. 312-742-7647)
Susanna Phillips photo by Fareine Suarez.