at Petrillo Music Shell

August 24 and 28

At times the unbearably hot weather this summer made it seem that outdoor summer music might become a thing of the past. But a merciful cool spell arrived just in time for the Grant Park Symphony’s last week of concerts.

Conducted, as they usually are, by Grant Park’s principal conductor Zdenek Macal, the final concerts featured, again as usual, mostly standard repertoire, almost all of it heard already at Ravinia earlier in the summer in far more interesting performances.

Take the Beethoven Violin Concerto, for instance. It was given an outstanding performance by Itzhak Perlman and the Montreal Symphony under Charles Dutoit at Ravinia’s opening weekend only eight weeks earlier–does it really make sense to present this symphonic war-horse so soon afterward at Grant Park? What makes it worse is that this important–if too often heard–work was given a substandard performance by violinist Mark Kaplan.

Although Kaplan had some moments of elegant phrasing and an occasional, appropriate playfulness, his performance overall suffered from intonation and pitch problems galore. His sound, which alternated between squeaky and scratchy, was consistently out of tune. Octave passages, smaller intervals, and countermelodies, especially in the upper register, were almost unbearably flat. Any number of violinists in the orchestra, it seemed, could have produced a more satisfying solo sound than Kaplan did.

Macal’s tempi, though slow, were solidly controlled, but there was little sense of balance–not between soloist and orchestra, and not between various sections of the orchestra. Some ragged section playing, especially in some of the syncopated rhythms between the strings, marred the third movement finale in particular.

In fact things were so bad in the Beethoven that I was tempted to leave before the second half of the concert, the Prokofiev Fifth Symphony. Dutoit and Montreal had also performed it a few weeks earlier at Ravinia, and why hear this wonderful work defiled by Macal’s mediocre treatment?

But the Fifth is one of the most important and interesting symphonies of the 20th century, and I decided to stay. Am I glad I did. Seldom have I heard such a contrast between the first and second parts of a concert; the difference was so great that if I hadn’t seen and heard it for myself, I would never have believed it was the same conductor.

Macal’s Prokofiev had all of the elements that usually seem so lacking in his conducting: wonderful color, good balance and texture, dynamic contrast. But most of all–and this was something that even Dutoit was unable to bring off as effectively–he made the work swing. Prokofiev must be rhythmically relentless when necessary, yet quietly colorful at other times. The music, with its constant changes, is a musical Mount Everest, yet Macal scaled the heights with ease.

Although there were some brass blurts at the beginning of the first movement and some buzzing, out-of-tune, ragged cello-section playing at the beginning of the fourth movement finale, by and large the Grant Park Symphony played the work extremely well, far above the level that one has come to expect from music making at Grant Park. Apparently Macal has a special gift for Prokofiev and is able to communicate his unique vision to the orchestra. A truly memorable performance, it suggested that a good dose of Prokofiev might be just what the doctor ordered for Macal-conducted weeks at Grant Park in future seasons.

In what was surely a unique situation for the drought-ridden summer of ’88, Saturday night’s concert was literally washed out. The sun was shining Sunday, however, for the last concert of the season, a concert that opened with minimalist Steve Reich’s 1986 work, Three Movements.

Much has been made of the innovative new music programming by Grant Park. This season alone, we heard the Bolcolm Violin Concerto, an exciting new piece by Chicagoan William Neil, and relatively new works by minimalists John Adams (of recent Nixon in China fame) and Reich.

Such efforts should be applauded, but it also needs to be said that it is not enough simply to program new scores. Some accommodation must be made for adequate rehearsal time, or the pieces simply do not work. One could only surmise, for example, that the Neil work was a brilliant contemporary symphonic tone poem–it was difficult to be sure given the level of the Grant Park performance. It can be argued, as some local critics have done, that it’s better to do something than nothing, but I am not sure that anyone is served–least of all the composer or the audience–when new scores are presented in a grossly underrehearsed manner. When it comes to new music, as Pierre Boulez has so aptly put it, “You must be convinced to be convincing.” That is difficult, if not impossible, when there isn’t enough rehearsal time. The Grant Park Symphony (or indeed, virtually any American summer symphony orchestra) is not really set up to do that. Even Ravinia has been conservative about presenting new orchestral works, and given the present union rehearsal conditions, this decision seems a sensible one. If the Chicago Symphony can’t pull it off, it seems reasonable to assume that Grant Park, a lesser orchestra, can’t either.

The Reich performance strongly reflected this problem. An interesting irony here is that Leonard Slatkin, who commissioned and premiered the work two years ago in Saint Louis, was a guest conductor at Grant Park earlier in the summer. One would think that the practical thing would have been to engage the more experienced Slatkin for the piece, although he might well have turned it down because of the inadequate rehearsal time. Besides, he had his hands full trying (in vain) to keep the scheduled singers in tune for his Grant Park concert presentation of Verdi’s Otello.

The Reich piece revealed its three movement structure–fast-slow-fast–in a continuous sweep, without pauses. Although it seemed that Macal had a good sense of the piece’s overall architecture, the orchestra tended to rush through the work. The strings in particular were rarely together, although the xylophones provided a good steady pulse.

The essence of effective minimalism is the musician’s ability to shift subtly through seemingly repetitious phrases; despite the seeming simplicity, counting must be very precise, and changes executed in a careful manner, or the music sounds disjunct. Gregorian chant in perfect unison, to take a related example, sounds simple, but it is very difficult to perform–breathing must be scattered for long continuous lines, and even one voice out of rhythm or pitch for even an instant sticks out like a sore thumb. It is much the same with minimalism, and analogous problems abounded in the orchestra. There was also little sense of dynamic contrast or effective phrasing–much of the music was treated as pointless repetition.

After the Reich we returned to some “safe” repertoire, the Beethoven Fifth Piano Concerto, the Emperor. Even though the work had been brilliantly performed at Ravinia a month earlier with soloist Stephen Hough and conducted by James Levine, there was a good reason to program the work: Soviet pianist Alexander Toradze, a musician of considerable reputation, was to perform it.

Unfortunately, what might have been a wonderful performance was significantly impaired, above all by the piano. Battered with repeated notes during the Reich piece, and with no intermission between the pieces in which to tune it, it was unmercifully out of tune. As the performance progressed, this problem intensified, to the point where many of the upper piano strings were off by as much as a quarter tone. The faster, syncopated sections of the third movement sounded like barroom Beethoven, honky-tonk style. Toradze was obviously flustered, and the result was many missed notes and phrases in a tremendously disappointing performance. He was given little help from Macal, whose conducting of the work was truly stodgy–he never attained the line between serious and playful that makes the piece so interesting.

The cheering crowd didn’t seem to care one way or the other, but fortunately Toradze chose to play the Toccata finale from the Prokofiev Seventh Piano Sonata as his solo encore.

This was an excellent choice, given that the pounding rhythms and crosshanded clusters were adequately perceptible despite the instrument’s tuning problems. Toradze’s accuracy and spirit bounced back admirably, and he made this the unexpected highlight of the evening, as well as a wonderful preview of his debut recital here next month.

The concert concluded with Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, which had been played in its Gorchakov orchestration a week earlier at Ravinia by Kurt Masur and the Israel Philharmonic. Macal conducted the traditional Ravel orchestration, which by and large is more interesting than the Gorchakov, but Macal gave it little of the color that Masur had been able to bring out so well. Macal’s “Promenade” opening was slow and unbalanced; the “Gnomus” section was stodgy and poorly ensembled. By contrast, the sections that should have been slower and more subtle, especially “The Old Castle,” were far too fast, and “Byldo” had little buildup or release. Many of the work’s most colorful effects were marred by poor solos, especially in the brass sections, trumpets most conspicuously.

The work’s climax, “The Great Gate of Kiev,” fared somewhat better, although the string playing was ragged and squeaky during the chiming climax. It all held together more tightly in a repeat of the section that served not only as an encore but as a fitting fanfare finale to the Grant Park concert season.