The Grant Park Orchestra had a particularly fine outing Friday night under the baton of guest conductor Markus Stenz. Most recently conductor-in-residence of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, the Stenz led a vigorous program of works from the first half of the 20th century.
The evening began with the first GPO performances of William Grant Still’s Dark America. A 15-minute essay from 1924, the score dates from the period when Still was studying with Edgard Varèse. The influence of the French modernist is palpable throughout, along with Still’s grounding in American blues and jazz. The result is an engaging mélange of styles that is coherent in inventive and unexpected ways.
Stenz had a clear vision of the score, organically melding moments of chromatic angularity with its swaggering jazzy passages. Anne Bach gave a mournful, reedy first statement of the work’s “sorrow theme” on English horn, and concertmaster Jeremy Black filled his jazz-inflected violin solo with convincing idiomatic slides.
Rachmaninoff’s beloved Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor followed, with soloist Simon Trpčeski. The Macedonian pianist displayed a relaxed yet assertive demeanor on stage that matched his obvious fluency with Rachmaninoff’s most well-known score. Trpčeski had a forward-leaning take on the opening Moderato, seldom allowing a sense of urgency to abate. The Pritzker Pavilion’s amplification was actually welcome here, as one could hear details of the solo part often obscured in the thick orchestral textures.
Trpčeski likely could have sustained the extended melody of the Adagio sostenuto to greater effect, as principal clarinet Dario Brignoli did in his prominent solo. The pianist dispatched the scherzando section toward the movement’s close with effortless technique, however, and Stenz brought cinematic sweep to the lush accompaniment.
The soloist made a dramatic impression with his entrance in the closing Allegro schezando, which was about the fastest trip up and back down a keyboard one can imagine. He continued to bring confident showmanship to Rachmaninoff’s dynamic finale, in which he was well supported by Stenz’s assured orchestral leadership. The pair warmly shared a deserved standing ovation at the work’s end.
As an encore, Trpčeski gave a wistful account of Chopin’s Waltz in A Minor, Op. post., demonstrating his interpretive breadth and offering a more intimate sensitivity than was called for in the concerto.
The program closed with a commendable performance of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. Stenz created a creeping atmosphere in the opening of the Introduzione, and maintained a sense of buoyancy throughout the ensuing Allegro vivace. The solo duos in the “Game of Pairs” all acquitted themselves well, though the audience’s noisy scramble from a passing rain shower made it hard to appreciate the playing.
Stenz seemed a bit impatient in the Elegia, whose lugubrious Transylvanian feel comes across better at a more settled pace, though he deftly steered the many schizoid shifts of the Intermezzo Interrotto. The Finale was a showcase of the orchestra’s collective virtuosity, with all sections dispatching Bartók’s flurries of black notes with spirit and precision.
The program will be repeated 7:30 pm Saturday at the Pritzker Pavilion. grantparkmusicfestival.com
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