Grant Park Music Festival: ì20th-Century Masters.î

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 BÈla B·rtokís 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 Williamsís Fantasia indicated,
from the start, a controlled and sensitive performance by the string sections
under Kalmarís 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 Williamsís 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 Kalmarís 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, Brittenís Les Illuminations,
was noteworthy for its committed performances by both vocal soloist and
accompanying players. From the first declaration of the repeated verse
ìJíai seul la clef de cette paradeî (ìI alone have the key to this
paradeî) 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 observerís voice and to fill out
individual roles or types portrayed in the vision she narrated. After the
introductory ìFanfare,î distinguished by Gauvinís memorable phrasing
and the violinís solo, the extended section ìVillesî (ìTownsî)
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 ìPhraseî (ìStropheî), the sopranoís quiet introductory
tones were capped by the impeccable high notes of the concluding ìet je
danseî (ìand now I danceî). Gauvin adapts her voice to the spirit of
each piece, so that she gave an, at times, bell-like rendition to the poem
ìAntiqueî (ìAntiquityî), whereas softer, more lyrical phrasing was
evident in ìRoyautÈî (ìRoyaltyî). The movements of a boatís prow
rising and falling in ìMarineî (ìSeascapeî) were effectively matched
by Gauvinís effortless scales and runs, the piece ending with a single,
emphatic note on the last vowel of ìtourbillons de lumiËreî
(ìwhirlpools of lightî). The struggles between elemental nature and human
efforts, foolish and tawdry, come to a resolution in the final two poems,
ìParadeî and ìDÈpartî (ìDepartureî). In the first of these
pieces Gauvinís communication of emotion through song was illustrated
repeatedly. Her skill at acting was also clear in a phrase such as ìla
grimace enragÈeî (ìthe furious grimaceî), in which rage seemed to
suffuse her glance. The song ended with Kalmarís especially sensitive
direction of the strings supporting Gauvin in the last repetition of the
ìkey to this parade.î The concluding poem ìDÈpartî gave the singer
yet further opportunity to display lyrical differentiation as tempos slowed
gradually toward a resigned statement of weariness in the phrase ìAssez
connuî (ìEnough knownî). It should be noted here that Gauvin sang the
text of the entire work from memory.

The final piece of the evening, B·rtokís Concerto for
, was given a masterful interpretation under Kalmarís
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
, the paired instruments played in skillful duets, the
bassoons standing out here especially. The final three movements, each shaped
in keeping with B·rtoksís 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

Salvatore Calomino

image_description=Carlos Kalmar
product_title=Grant Park Music Festival, Chicago
Performance of 28 June 2008
product_by=Above: Carlos Kalmar, Principal Conductor