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Carlos Kalmar
13 Jul 2008

Grant Park Music Festival: “20th-Century Masters.”

The concert “20th-Century Masters,” presented by the Grant Park Music Festival, Chicago on 27 and 28 June 2008 featured several pieces performed for the first time under the auspices of the Festival.

Grant Park Music Festival, Chicago
Performance of 28 June 2008

Above: Carlos Kalmar, Principal Conductor


The first half of the program was devoted to those very works new to this venue: The Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis for Strings by Ralph Vaughan Williams was followed by Les Illuminations by Benjamin Britten, here sung by Karina Gauvin with accompanying string orchestra. Both works were given thoughtful and well-focused performances under the direction of Carlos Kalmar, Principal Conductor of the Grant Park Music Festival. After intermission Béla Bártok’s Concerto for Orchestra added yet another dimension to the variety encompassed in this program of innovative works composed during the first five decades of the past century.

The soft beginning of Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia indicated, from the start, a controlled and sensitive performance by the string sections under Kalmar’s leadership. The clarity of playing by individualized segments emphasized the effect of groups within a larger composition. In the first part of the piece the alternations between smaller string groups and full orchestra were seamless. As an ensemble, the players succeeded in emphasizing the harmonic complexity of Vaughan Williams’s own variations balanced against the theme derived from Tallis. During the middle section of the Fantasia the solo playing, especially by the lead violist and principal violinist, achieved a thematic counterpoint and repetition as echoed by other players with successive support from the whole orchestra. Just as individual lines were varied leading into the final segment, one could sense Kalmar’s shaping of the gradual descent into a distended conclusion. A final flourish of melodic repeat by soloists as well as the full orchestra moved with great effect toward the inexorable and fittingly delicate ending.

The following work in the program, Britten’s Les Illuminations, was noteworthy for its committed performances by both vocal soloist and accompanying players. From the first declaration of the repeated verse “J’ai seul la clef de cette parade” (“I alone have the key to this parade”) Karina Gauvin established a tone of authority and privileged vision of the world about which she sang. Set to a selection of texts derived from two poetic cycles by Arthur Rimbaud, Britten chose poems which move in tone from that of an ecstatic visionary to a mood of dejected resignation. Gauvin used her secure vocal range to stunning effect in order both to comment with the ironic distance of an observer’s voice and to fill out individual roles or types portrayed in the vision she narrated. After the introductory “Fanfare,” distinguished by Gauvin’s memorable phrasing and the violin’s solo, the extended section “Villes” (“Towns”) depicted humanity caught up in both progress and decay as a symbol of the contemporary city. As she intoned here the litany of contrasts between the ancient and the modern, Gauvin accelerated in tempo to catch the near breathless depiction of lyrical complexity. While hovering above society in the poem “Phrase” (“Strophe”), the soprano’s quiet introductory tones were capped by the impeccable high notes of the concluding “et je danse” (“and now I dance”). Gauvin adapts her voice to the spirit of each piece, so that she gave an, at times, bell-like rendition to the poem “Antique” (“Antiquity”), whereas softer, more lyrical phrasing was evident in “Royauté” (“Royalty”). The movements of a boat’s prow rising and falling in “Marine” (“Seascape”) were effectively matched by Gauvin’s effortless scales and runs, the piece ending with a single, emphatic note on the last vowel of “tourbillons de lumière” (“whirlpools of light”). The struggles between elemental nature and human efforts, foolish and tawdry, come to a resolution in the final two poems, “Parade” and “Départ” (“Departure”). In the first of these pieces Gauvin’s communication of emotion through song was illustrated repeatedly. Her skill at acting was also clear in a phrase such as “la grimace enragée” (“the furious grimace”), in which rage seemed to suffuse her glance. The song ended with Kalmar’s especially sensitive direction of the strings supporting Gauvin in the last repetition of the “key to this parade.” The concluding poem “Départ” gave the singer yet further opportunity to display lyrical differentiation as tempos slowed gradually toward a resigned statement of weariness in the phrase “Assez connu” (“Enough known”). It should be noted here that Gauvin sang the text of the entire work from memory.

The final piece of the evening, Bártok’s Concerto for Orchestra, was given a masterful interpretation under Kalmar’s direction. After a subdued start in the opening Andante, individual sections of the orchestra blended effectively without sounding overly controlled. The string section was brought to a shimmer before the dramatic ending of the first movement. In the second movement, Allegretto scherzando, the paired instruments played in skillful duets, the bassoons standing out here especially. The final three movements, each shaped in keeping with Bártoks’s markings, showcased individual groups of instruments as punctuated by sweeping phrases from contrasting sections of the orchestra. The intensification of the final movement was not only credible, it also brought the individual sections back to a unified orchestral force. The performance was a fitting conclusion to the evening as titled.

Salvatore Calomino

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