at Petrillo Band Shell

July 6

“We’re having an eat wave” was the message on a large banner that hung across the top of the band shell in Grant Park during the recent appearance there by conductor George Cleve and superstar pianist Andre Watts. If the banner was an inappropriate visual distraction from their sublime music making, it was a small irritant compared to the audible distraction of boom boxes, a blues band, arguments between irate concertgoers and incompetent security guards, and the general din of the nearby “Taste of Chicago” festival.

There is nothing wrong with trying to lure some of the hordes of people attracted to the park by “Taste” into a classical-music concert. Such an experience can be a doorway to a whole new world of sound; the July 3 concerts have certainly become an annual tradition for many people who might otherwise have little interest in a symphonic concert. Yet everyone who comes to the holiday concert knows exactly what to expect: a concert of usually accessible, often frivolous American music, capped off by the familiar Tchaikovsky 1812 Overture and a medley of Sousa marches that serves as a backdrop for the fireworks display. It is mostly symphonic music–but not subtle music–that does not have to be listened to closely to be enjoyed.

There are any number of Grant Park programs–notably the opening night “Tchaikovsky Spectacular” or any of the pops concerts–that could have withstood, perhaps could even have been enhanced by, the distractions of “Taste.” But the Watts and Cleve program–Beethoven’s Egmont Overture and Fourth Piano Concerto, and the Brahms Fourth Symphony–is a program of extraordinarily meaningful music that is intelligible only to the extent that it can be listened to closely–particularly when the artistry is as sublime as that of Watts and Cleve.

Conductor George Cleve is a prime example of a bizarre but all too common irony in the music world: for every visionless conductor with an overblown international reputation, there is somewhere a George Cleve, a multitalented, first-rate, can-do-it-all conductor who remains largely unknown to the public.

Cleve conducted at Grant Park in the early 1980s; he even conducted one of those half-a-million-people July 3 concerts. Nonetheless, most of those who came out to Ravinia last August to hear Andre Watts play Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony directed by Cleve must have found themselves asking, “George who?” Yet I’ve never heard the CSO sound better than it did on that occasion, and it certainly was the most impressive conducting debut with the CSO in a long, long time. A week later, when early-music specialist Trevor Pinnock canceled his Grant Park appearances, Cleve filled in for him, conducting an all-Mozart program that brought out the best in the Grant Park Symphony.

Surprisingly, the combination of the CSO, Watts, and Cleve was not on this year’s Ravinia schedule, but apparently there were scheduling complications. So the Chicago public was given the rare opportunity to hear Watts and Cleve with the Grant Park Symphony.

Obviously, the Grant Park Symphony is not the Chicago Symphony, and Watts and Cleve are far better than those usually heard in Grant Park. But the combination provided a fascinating glimpse at what is possible when Chicago’s “other” professional orchestra has solid musical direction–something it rarely gets even in its various other guises, as the Lyric Opera in the fall and as the Orchestra of Illinois in the winter. (If the orchestra can work through its present financial crisis, which forced the cancellation of most of its 1988 season, the long-awaited debut of music director Christof Perick may change all that during the winter. But there is still the rest of the year.)

Cleve puts the emphasis where it ought to be–on the music. His Egmont Overture, despite some ragged wind playing and a few late string attacks (characteristics of this orchestra that are usually far more pronounced and that would disappear in time with someone like Cleve conducting it regularly), seemed to reflect the treachery in Goethe’s play as it worked its way through to a frenzied and exciting climax. Cleve’s Beethoven is always carefully balanced, nuanced, and full of dynamic contrast, a particularly rare treat in Grant Park. He has an ability to keep even a large string section light sounding and to bring out the wind writing, which most conductors in their modern-instrument performances don’t do.

Watts brings to the Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto all that is needed–especially virtuosity and lyricism–to make this most sublime of the master’s works for piano and orchestra reveal its magic. Although the work’s beautiful opening for solo piano was totally inaudible due to a security incident toward the front of the audience, the architecture of the first movement was poetically unfolded by Watts and was picked up majestically by Cleve. The bouncy dialogue sections between piano and orchestra were wonderfully played–the orchestra obviously rose to the occasion. The slow movement was also well played, but was difficult to hear given the surrounding din. The transition to the finale was handled with delightfully playful syncopation on Watts’s part, and Cleve was right with him all the way. Rarely does one hear a more unified conception of a single piece of music by soloist and conductor.

The Brahms Fourth is the ultimate study in romantic lyricism, luckily one of Cleve’s specialties. From the opening line, it was evident that phrasing is everything for Cleve–it was wonderful to see a conductor who wasn’t swallowed up by the work and left wallowing in its many beautiful moments. The tempos were never too slow, the orchestral effects were wonderfully balanced and nuanced, and the dynamic contrast was fully brought out in repeated sections. The orchestra gave a truly spectacular and noble performance.

I hope that it will not be long before Chicago has another chance to hear the glorious Watts-Cleve partnership; if the CSO doesn’t leap at the chance to have them back, it’s only because Chicago music making is so often filled with politics and jealousies. In the meantime, the CSO’s loss is Grant Park’s gain–thank goodness that Grant Park’s innovative and attentive administrator, Steve Ovitsky, takes advantage of the situation. But please Steve, one taste at a time.