at the Petrillo Music Shell

July 7 and 8

Grant Park programs are often full of imagination, but Grant Park conductors usually are not. I find that the latter generally nullify the virtues of the former. While a first-rate orchestra can sound decent even with a second-rate conductor–as the Chicago Symphony proves with great regularity–a second-rank orchestra led by a second-rate conductor usually sounds unfocused and scrappy.

But match a second-class orchestra with a first-class conductor, and something very special begins to happen; do it often enough, and it is the orchestra’s standards–not the conductor’s–that will change. Early this month (fortunately just after Taste of Chicago), the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra proved this with its most adventurous weekend of the season, a Friday night concert under the direction of John Adams and a Saturday night program (repeated on Sunday) led by Andrew Parrott. This was a Chicago debut for Adams, a minimalist composer who has lately been garnering a reputation as a conductor; he is one of three conductors (along with Christopher Hogwood and Hugh Wolff) overseeing the activities of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. For Parrott the weekend was a triumphant return to the site of his American debut, a thoroughly magical concert given here in 1987; the founder of Britain’s first period-instrument orchestra (yes, pre-Hogwood and Pinnock) and one of its most prestigious choral ensembles (the Taverner Choir), Parrott is just starting to achieve the recognition that many of his less-deserving colleagues have long enjoyed.

Adams’s program consisted of Gershwin’s An American in Paris; a new piano concerto, Glosas, by the Puerto Rican composer Roberto Sierra; Adams’s own The Chairman Dances; and Ravel’s Bolero.

Whenever I hear An American in Paris I am astonished anew that it was only Gershwin’s third “serious” composition (that is to say, involving an orchestra). In fact, it was only his second actual encounter with orchestration: arranger Ferde Grofe scored Rhapsody in Blue. Gershwin was so unsure of his ability to bring off a totally symphonic work (both Rhapsody and the Concerto in F are piano concertos) that he went to Europe to see what he could learn from the continent’s leading composers. Much legend surrounds Gershwin’s meetings with such luminaries as Stravinsky and Ravel–both of whom, it was said, knew and admired Gershwin’s work–but in the end Gershwin’s trip provided him with more inspiration than technique. He called An American in Paris a “tone poem for orchestra,” thinking of Liszt and Richard Strauss, even though the sound world that he created in the piece owes little to those composers.

What I particularly admired in Adams’s reading of the work was his light, bouncy approach, emphasizing its jazz and blues roots. The problem with most performances of American is that they are given by conductors who are steeped in Brahms and apt to be heavy-handed and overly Germanic in their interpretations. The work calls for a French approach in many respects, an ability to project sonority above all. At the same time it needs a jazz-blues sense of rhythm and syncopation. Adams, it turns out, understands all this, and his performance was a real pleasure. His tempi seemed slower than his light approach warranted (presumably he chose to favor accuracy over speed), but the strings were getting a much purer, straighter tone than usual, and the winds had a delightful cabaret quality to them. There were some predictable brass blurbs, but the violin lead lines were very well rendered. Adams’s sense of form and tension and buildup were quite convincing, and I have never heard anyone approach the meter of the piece with greater playfulness and flexibility.

Roberto Sierra’s Glosas (“glosses,” as in textual expansions or commentaries) is in effect a piano concerto, based on elements, we are told, from Caribbean popular music. Its motivic material is very chromatic and makes great use of the tritone, a dissonant interval that creates a sense of tension which in this piece is never resolved. Not that that has to be a problem; Sierra is extraordinarily clever in the way he uses and transforms these materials, all the while mixing them with Latin rhythms to heighten the tension. The piece owes as much to Bartok, Prokofiev, Ginastera, and British horror films as it does to anything Caribbean, but it is a lot of fun and has a wonderful sense of color and style. Pianist Jose Ramos-Santana, for whom the difficult work was written, performed it with ease, and the Grant Park Symphony, thanks to Adams’s careful direction, didn’t miss a beat. Frankly I was surprised. I have often been critical of Grant Park’s tackling new works that it is unable to bring off effectively, but obviously with the right piece, soloist, conductor, and context, it can work very well.

I was also skeptical about how well Adams’s own work, The Chairman Dances, would go; Grant Park’s forays into minimalism have generally been quite scrappy. Minimalism often sounds simple, but repetitious phrases played tightly together across a large orchestra, varying slightly, are nightmares of counting and concentration for even the most accomplished players. Further I was aware that the work was an offshoot of Adams’s controversial 1987 opera, Nixon in China, which I found an insufferable bore. If Adams has a sense of how to write for the human voice, he did not display much of it in Nixon. Moreover I was put off by the opera’s unlikely combination of a minimalist score with a conventional linear libretto. Philip Glass’s Satyagraha, a minimalist opera that I found rewarding and memorable, does not attempt to tell the Gandhi story in a traditional Western sequence of events; rather it is a series of tableaux or meditations, in which the underlying musical repetition becomes a sort of public mantra, fitting the cyclical Eastern ethos and the mystical and sacred character of the Sanskrit verses that serve as the libretto. As for Nixon, there appears to be no particular reason why a minimalist style, versus, say, a serial style, was used for this opera’s subject matter.

The Chairman Dances is, according to Adams, who offered a chatty introduction to the piece, “an outtake from Nixon in China.” It seems that Madame Mao gate-crashes the final presidential banquet and suddenly disrobes before the guests (she was a film actress in the 30s). She beckons to her husband’s huge image on the wall, and the old man comes down from his poster and they fox-trot, “fantasizing all the while,” said Adams, “that they are Ginger and Fred.” The scene remained in the opera, but the full music was not used.

As a separate piece of music, The Chairman Dances is a fun-spirited and energetic piece–a hilarious spoof of 30s dance music as the Chinese might have imagined it, with wood blocks beating the time against piano and harp and a gushy, string-laden big-band accompaniment. The piece builds in momentum across a classic arc. The subtlety, accuracy, and good humor with which the Grant Park players approached it made the total effect all the more entertaining. Adams may have trouble writing for voice, but he is a master orchestrator and a superb musical craftsman.

What better to crown this concert than Ravel’s Bolero? Not only does it fit with the general theme of dance and meter that this program emphasized, but it too, it could be argued, is a minimalist piece, with constant repetition through shifting sonorities and dynamics. Also, because the two newer works were cleverly sandwiched between such “hits” as An American in Paris and Bolero, everyone in the audience stayed right through to the end.

Unfortunately, Bolero revealed the weak character of many of Grant Park’s section soloists; some, such as the saxophones and clarinet, simply lacked personality or character, but some had grave technical difficulties, including a very flat trumpet solo and a trombone that flubbed through many of its notes. Even so, Adams brought out the work’s overtones in a nice, tangy way, and his sense of buildup was remarkably clear, even if the final climax never really achieved its full dynamic potential.

Grant Park manager and artistic director Steven Ovitsky has consistently tried to bring in early-music conductors to lead programs of early repertoire, and though the results have been mixed, he is to be congratulated for taking the risk. The last such conductor brought in to do Beethoven was Dutchman Frans Bruggen, probably the greatest living Baroque recorder player, who had taken up conducting as well. The results were disastrous–either Bruggen had failed to get his ideas across to the orchestra, or his ideas were abysmally boring. I never realized how many repeats Beethoven had put in the Eroica Symphony–every one went by very slowly and with no dynamic contrast whatsoever. This was Beethoven slower and more lifeless than that of even the most ardent Romantic conductors.

Luckily such was not the case with Andrew Parrott’s Saturday night concert, which included Beethoven’s first piano concerto, with soloist Hung-Kuan Chen, and his complete music for Egmont. The program began auspiciously, with some music of the virtually forgotten Italian classicist Luigi Cherubini, the overture to his opera Medee, based on the sorceress Medea from Greek mythology. The orchestra’s ensembling was tight, despite Parrott’s using a full orchestra (presumably for projection, which makes great sense when you are performing outside and sound slips away into the night); the phrasing was beautifully done, and balances were carefully nuanced, although Parrott’s tempo was surprisingly slow.

Two recent recordings of Beethoven piano concertos on period instruments have forced a rethinking of the works: the Anthony Newman set conducted by Stephen Simon, and the Stephen Lubin set conducted by Christopher Hogwood. The Newman set is the one that most closely approximates Beethoven’s controversial metronome markings (he had an early version of the device and added the markings often long after a piece had been written, which has led many to question their accuracy), and Newman’s version of the first concerto, played at its marked tempo, is eye-opening. It is a rare modern pianist who can take the work at these brisk tempi and make it sound like music instead of mush, but Newman is one virtuoso who can bring it off.

I had hoped that Parrott’s thinking and tempi would be along similar lines, but even if they were, Taiwanese painist Hung-Kuan Chen’s were not. Chen wanted to take the work very slowly, and Parrott wisely gave in rather than let himself get way ahead. Once that compromise was made evident, I just accepted that we were in for a long evening. Fortunately, even though Chen’s playing was slow, it was poetic, insightful, and exquisitely phrased. His touch was light, never ponderous, and the rapport between him and Parrott was excellent, making for a wonderful piano-orchestra balance. Things even managed to pick up a bit for the third-movement finale.

Things picked up radically for the second part of the program, which began with Beethoven’s Egmont Overture at a nice clip, although without the heightening tension and drama typical of more Romantic interpretations. Parrott’s modus operandi was to emphasize the Classical roots of this music rather than its emerging Romanticism, and while I find the former an interesting approach (Parrott is certainly one of the best exponents of it), it is less satisfying to me than the latter. Parrott’s is a nice and pretty Beethoven, not an “over the edge” interpretation that shows Beethoven’s more revolutionary and avant-garde qualities. The attacks and entrances were clean and precise, although again, Parrott seemed to be holding back a bit tempo-wise, presumably because he prefers accuracy to speed and was concerned that the orchestra couldn’t have kept up with him. (I suspect he was right.)

Following the familiar overture was a performance of virtually the complete incidental music that Beethoven wrote for Goethe’s play Egmont, a historical fiction concerning the 16th-century Flemish count who led a resistance movement against Spanish rule and became a martyr in the cause of freedom. The pieces, including two lovely and rarely heard songs for Egmont’s beloved Clarchen (nicely sung by an overmiked Diane Ragains), were connected by a summary of what goes on in the play, cleverly adapted by radio dramatist Yuri Rasovsky and convincingly narrated by Chicago actor Joe van Slyke. Van Slyke also took the role of the count for the rousing finale, in which, to Beethoven’s heroic strains, he calls out that his blood shall free the land from Spanish occupation, and encourages his countrymen to follow him to glory.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Zoe Dominic.