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Chicago Classical Review » » Michelle Cann Lights Up Grant Park Overture With Price Concerto

Michelle Cann performed Florence Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement at the opening concert of the Grant Park Music Festival on Wednesday night. Photo: Charles Osgood

The opening nights of the Grant Park Music Festival are usually lively. But the atmosphere was positively jubilant on Wednesday when the Grant Park Orchestra kicked off the festival’s 88e the summer.

After two years of strict pandemic restrictions, the Pritzker Pavilion stage was filled with musicians performing without masks or concerns about social distancing. Led by an exuberant Carlos Kalmar, Grant Park’s longtime artistic director and principal bandleader, the musicians seemed to savor every moment, deftly blending full-throttle enthusiasm with serious insight.

With all due respect to Mozart and Wagner, whose music opened and closed the concert, the highlight of the evening was the orchestra’s first performance of Florence Price’s One-Movement Piano Concerto composed in 1934. An African-American composer and pianist whose music is being rediscovered after long, shameful decades of neglect, Price lived in Chicago for part of his life and found success here. In 1933, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra gave the world premiere of its Symphony No. 1, and Riccardo Muti and the CSO gave the late local debut of his Third Symphony last month.

Price’s concerto, whose original orchestration resurfaced only a few years ago, is the work of a master composer, and soloist Michelle Cann has made the most of its extravagant energy. In the opening pages, after a few moments of plaintive wind and brass reverie, Cann’s piano burst into an extended solo. Although the solo shimmered with nonstop arpeggios and crisp chords that thundered across the keyboard, it wasn’t just a flashy display of the power of piano fingers. Like Rachmaninoff, Price was able to infuse breathtaking virtuosity with thoughtful purpose. His play of showy ornaments and heartfelt, lilting melodies was carefully paced.

Cann has given early performances of this concerto with several orchestras, and she knows it clearly in her bones. In the final section, she tore through Price’s driving, ragtime-infused melodies with the searing joy of a honky-tonk pianist. Throughout the concerto, Kalmar maintained an impressive balance between orchestra and soloist. Cann rode the orchestral waves like a proud ship on a mighty sea.

The jubilant audience demanded an encore and Cann agreed with Troubled Water, a fantasy by Margaret Bonds – one of Price’s students and later his friend – about the witty “Wade in the Water”. Cann explored every corner of the piece’s changing moods, from its coolly sophisticated syncopations to moments when delicate tendrils weaving around the simple melody of the spiritual wandered off into unexpected harmonies.

The concert opened with a crisp, fast performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 35 (“Haffner”). Nothing felt rushed and the game felt relaxed and light on its feet.

Carlos Kalmar conducted the Grant Park Orchestra in music by Mozart, Price and Wagner on opening night. Photo: Charles Osgood

Closing the concert with orchestral excerpts from Wagner’s opera Die Meistersinger von Nuremberg, Kalmar has managed to strike the right balance between grandeur and emphasis. This is Wagner’s only so-called “comic” opera, and Kalmar emphasized its flowing melodic lines and often sustained rhythms. Even the majestic “Procession of the Meistersingers” sparkled. Rather than a somber march of smug sages, it felt like a bustling parade of skilled artisans celebrating the work they loved.

Covid is still with us, and we are all getting used to an ever-changing new normal. But on Wednesday night, it was deeply encouraging to see that the Grant Park Orchestra looked and sounded like its distinguished former self, perhaps even better than ever.

Carlos Kalmar conducts the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus this weekend in Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5 (“Reformation”), that of Judith Weir We are shadows and the world premiere of Mischa Zupko Blue matter. Concert time is 6:30 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Millennium Park. gpmf.org.

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