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Grant Park Orchestra lets virtuoso banners fly with (quiet) indoor Bruckner Sixth Symphony

Submitted by on Aug 2, 2015 – 7:29 pm

Guest conductor Christoph König tapped into the expressive heart of the Bruckner Sixth Symphony. (Norman Timonera)Review: Grant Park Orchestra conducted by Christoph König at Harris Theater.

By Lawrence B. Johnson

Knowing that Bruckner outdoors at the Pritzker Pavilion stood no chance against the sonic assault from nearby Lollapalooza, the Grant Park Music Festival moved its July 31 and Aug. 1 performances into the Harris Theater – and gave its audience the opportunity to appreciate just how good the festival orchestra really is. 

Composer Anton Bruckner (1824-96) wrote his Sixth Symphony in 1879-81.While Pritzker boasts an excellent acoustical shell and sound system, concerts al fresco are what they are, fraught with helicopters, sirens, horns and all the other accompaniments of the central city. Pleasurable as Grant Park Orchestra events typically are, they simply can’t deliver the nuances – or pose the artistic test – of classical music played in a proper concert hall environment.

The finesse of the Grant Park Orchestra was on full, glorious display in its performance of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 6 under guest conductor Christoph König on July 31 at the Harris.

To be sure, the nearly hour-long Bruckner Sixth has what one might call its “outdoor” moments, those characteristic Brucknerian eruptions for full orchestra that seem to resonate on a cosmic scale. But it was to the credit of König that he didn’t lose the larger, more profound sense of this symphony in pursuit of those heaven-stormy episodes, and to the credit of his ensemble that it probed deeply and confidently into the expressive nuance that defines that true heart of the work.

König, 47, music director of the Solistes Européens Luxembourg, shaped a beautiful, fluid and grand Bruckner Sixth by means of notably restrained gestures. No podium histrionics for him, no leaping or swooping; in an unfussy manner, he managed to elicit an easy rhythmic flow, precise balances and clear architecture.  Indeed, to the vastness of the Sixth, König and company brought accessibility.

Christoph Guest conductor Christoph König tapped into the expressive heart of the Bruckner Sixth Symphony. (Norman Timonera) captured the grandeur as well as the lyricism of the Bruckner Sixth. (Norman Timonera)Only in recent years has the Sixth Symphony (1979-81) shaken off a tradition of critical disregard to take its place among Bruckner’s acknowledged masterpieces. It’s also one of the few among his nine numbered symphonies that the composer did not substantially revise in response to severe criticism.

The Grant Park Orchestra made lovely work of the Sixth’s bountiful lyricism, the eloquent and soaring juxtaposition of woodwinds against strings and, especially, the warm cascading of brasses. The soul of the Sixth – and, on could argue, its greatest challenge — lies in its expansive slow movement, where everything depends on refined ensemble quality; and in that magnificent music, the orchestra in König’s care displayed a collective virtuosity that’s hard to convey in the urban night air.

Impressive as well was the attentive quiet of an audience that filled much of the Harris auditorium. Attentive and respectful. Listeners had come with a serious purpose, to experience a symphony that’s still performed far less often than enduring Bruckner favorites like the Fourth, Seventh and Ninth. The concert-hall quiet particularly allowed the big slow movement to speak in subtle accents – or rather, it allowed a well-prepared orchestra to deliver the musical goods.

The concert opened with the Overture to Weber’s quintessential romantic opera “Der Freischütz” (literally “The Free-Shooter,” or better “The Marksman”). König led a suitably dark, yet songful performance that cast the orchestra’s French horns in radiant light.

Back at Pritzker Pavilion, the Grant Park Orchestra continues its summer season of free concerts Aug. 5 with music director Carlos Kalmar again on the podium and Inon Barnatan as soloist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17. Kalmar then leads the orchestra and Grant Park Chorus in a program of Haydn’s Mass in B-flat and John Adams’ “Harmonielehre” on Aug. 7-8.

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