&ldquoAs Alsop faced the cellos and drew from them the most tremendously shaped phrases with every inflection of her baton, you were aware of being in the presence of greatness.&rdquo
27th July 2016

Grant Park Music Festival 2016

It was one of those nifty programming coups that make Grant Park the smartest music festival on the summer block.

Wednesday night at Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, Marin Alsop was joined by two other MacArthur Foundation fellowship recipients for the first program of the conductor’s weeklong residency with the Grant Park Orchestra.

Her program, well chosen for an outdoor festival, paired two scores that, in their very different ways, share a global perspective.

Its central component was “LIFE: A Journey Through Time,” a multimedia tribute to the continuity and kinship of life on Earth that sets stunning nature images by National Geographic photographer Frans Lanting to the live accompaniment of a score by Philip Glass.

Like many of the simple life forms we see early in the film, Glass’ music pulses and replicates, evolving into more complex structures. The score draws on his familiar stylistic devices: burbling arpeggios, swaying syncopations, chugging rhythmic patterns and the like. Certain pages move in sync with the rhythmic sequencing of the visual images. Alsop thus was required to function as much as a timekeeper as a conductor, keeping the lush orchestration percolating, aided by a video monitor in front of her. She and the Grant Park musicians did an airtight job of the presentation.


21 JULY, 2016

All too rarely do outdoor concerts take advantage of being outdoors. Often the music competes (to its detriment) with the sounds of nature.

But Wednesday night’s Grant Park Music Festival program was smartly chosen to work with its surroundings. Marin Alsop led the Grant Park Orchestra in the sky-themed Azul by Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov and in the earth-themed Life: A Journey Through Time by Philip Glass at the Pritzker Pavilion.

Azul is something of a latter-day concerto grosso, whose astronomical theme was inspired by Golijov’s visit to the Hayden Planetarium in New York (according to the program notes) or to watching the stars while listening to music on the Tanglewood lawn (according to the composer’s spoken remarks). Its four solo parts are for cello, hyperaccordion, and two percussionists playing an astounding array of instruments. Star cellist Alisa Weilerstein was primus inter pares, with Michael Ward-Bergeman, James Haddad, and Cyro Baptista, respectively, backing her up.

(If you have not heard of a hyperaccordion before, that is probably because Ward-Bergeman invented the instrument. It is to the accordion what a sophisticated electric keyboard is to the piano. In fact, if you closed your eyes, at most points you would have mistaken the instrument for either an ordinary accordion or a synthesizer.)

The piece’s outer movements are like a creature crying out in a vast wilderness. The middle section begins hypnotically, and ends in cataclysm, which Alsop and the orchestra played with the thunder of a Mahlerian march. The third movement features just the soloists, with the cello playing arpeggiated figures reminiscent of a Bach prelude, while the percussionists conjure various global music traditions.

All four soloists played their parts well, with Weilerstein the standout for her plangent but clear tone. Alsop and the orchestra delivered on the piece’s wide variety of timbres, particularly the brasses, who brayed at the conclusion in a moment the composer likened to stars shooting across the skies.