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Grant Park Fest’s all-summer concert party begins with a selfie of bad-news Belshazzar

Submitted by on Jun 17, 2018 – 12:36 pm

Review: Grant Park Festival Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Carlos Kalmar, at Millennium Park on June 13 and 16.
By Lawrence B. Johnson

Summer’s obviously just over the horizon: The musicians, chorus, maestro and devotees of the Grant Park Music Festival are already partying like the equinox has happened. As the centerpiece of the festival’s 84th summer opener, William Walton’s grand and colorful oratorio “Belshazzar’s Feast” felt like a reflection of the block-party atmosphere at Millennium Park.

But of course the message of the proverbial moving finger, in the Old Testament story of the Babylonian King Belshazzar, portends a much different ending than the clamorous applause that answered the splendid festival performance of Walton’s music under conductor Carlos Kalmar.

The pagan king and his court are partying down when, in an excess of hedonism, Belshazzar commands his guests to praise the false gods of worldly riches – of gold, silver, iron, wood, stone and brass. That’s when the mysterious finger appears and scrawls on the wall: “Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting.” The vain and blasphemous king doesn’t survive the night.

Walton, not yet 30 years old when he completed his oratorio in 1931, captured the brilliance and the decadence of Belshazzar’s last fling as well as the narrative’s high-tension drama. So, one must hasten to add, did Kalmar and his festival orchestra, the chorus prepared by Christopher Bell and the solo bass-baritone Dashon Burton.

The chorus delivered its highly charged narrative with great power and exhilarating effect. In contrast stood the solitary, authoritative figure of Burton, whose rich and focused voice punctuated all – the scene, the clamorous music, the evening air on the lakefront.

Kalmar’s orchestra mustered not only the ample textures and dazzling sonorities of Walton’s score but also its jagged, often jazz-inflected rhythms. It was a midsummer-sure performance by an ad hoc ensemble – come together from all over the country – on its first outing of the 10-week series.

One might say the orchestra warmed up for Walton with the likewise scintillating music of Sean Shepherd’s “Magiya,” an eight-minute showpiece whose Russian title means “magic.”

Written in 2013 on commission for the inaugural season and tour of the National Youth Orchestra of the United States with conductor Valery Gergiev, “Magiya” celebrates the splendorous Russian orchestral tradition handed down from Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky and Shostakovich. In other words, this concise exhibition challenges an ensemble’s across-the-board virtuosity. The Grant Park Festival Orchestra served up the glittering fare with bravura and panache – a ringing start to the concert and the summer series.

The impression of an orchestra in all-around fit condition was rounded off by Haydn’s Symphony No. 99 in E-flat, a work of elegant poise and deceptive virtuoso demands. Kalmar’s buoyant concept was answered by playing that was animated, fluent and clear.

Next up at the festival comes another large-scale work featuring the chorus – the world premiere of “The Pleiades” by Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds, with Kalmar conducting a program (June 20 and 22) that also features Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” and music of Messiaen and Brahms.

New this year, the City of Chicago has implemented a security perimeter and bag check for all concerts and events that take place at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. For most Grant Park Music Festival concerts, security entails a bag check screening for weapons and other items prohibited at Millennium Park.

Special July 4 notice: Although patrons are generally allowed to bring their own beer and wine for picnicking during performances, for the July 4 concert visitors will not be able to bring alcohol into the park. Beer and wine will be available for purchase at concession tents inside the park.

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