Chicago Classical Review » » Stenz and Trpčeski light up a 20th century program with the Grant Park Orchestra

Markus Stenz conducted the Grant Park Orchestra in the music of Still, Rachmaninoff and Bartók on Friday night. Photo: Norman Timonera

The Grant Park Orchestra had a particularly successful outing on Friday night under guest conductor Markus Stenz. Most recently conductor-in-residence of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, the Stenz has conducted a vigorous program of works from the first half of the 20e century.

The evening began with the first GPO performances of William Grant Still Darker America. A 15-minute essay dating from 1924, the score dates from the time when Still was studying with Edgard Varèse. The French modernist influence is palpable throughout, as is Still’s roots in American blues and jazz. The result is an attractive mix of styles that come together in inventive and unexpected ways.

Stenz had a clear vision for the score, organically merging moments of chromatic angularity with his swaggering jazzy passages. Anne Bach gave a mournful, wispy opening statement of the work’s ‘painful theme’ on the English horn, and concertmaster Jeremy Black filled his jazz-tinged violin solo with compelling idiomatic slides.

Rachmaninoff’s beloved Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor followed, featuring soloist Simon Trpčeski. The Macedonian pianist displayed a relaxed yet assertive demeanor on stage that matched his evident ease with Rachmaninoff’s best-known score. Trpčeski had a forward-thinking view of the opening Moderato, rarely allowing a sense of urgency to subside. The amplification of the Pritzker pavilion was actually welcome here, as you could hear details of the solo part often obscured in the thick orchestral textures.

Simon Trpčeski performed Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 on Friday evening. Photo: Norman Timonera

Trpčeski could probably have supported the extended melody of the Adagio sostenuto with more effect, as did principal clarinet Dario Brignoli in his prominent solo. The pianist sent the scherzando section towards the end of the movement with effortless technique, however, and Stenz brought a cinematic sweep to the lush accompaniment.

The soloist made a dramatic impression with his entry into the closing Allegro schezando, which was about the fastest trip up and down a keyboard imaginable. He continued to bring confident showmanship to Rachmaninoff’s dynamic finale, in which he was well supported by Stenz’s assured orchestral direction. The couple warmly shared a well-deserved standing ovation at the end of the work.

As an encore, Trpčeski gave a melancholic account of Chopin’s Waltz in A minor, Op. post., demonstrating its interpretative breadth and offering a more intimate sensibility than was demanded in the concerto.

The program ended with a commendable performance of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. Stenz created a creeping atmosphere in the opening Introduzione and maintained a sense of buoyancy throughout the vivacious Allegro that followed. The solo duos in the ‘game of pairs’ all acquitted themselves well, although the loud jostling of the audience after a passing downpour made it difficult to appreciate the game.

Stenz seemed a bit impatient in the Elegia, whose gloomy Transylvanian vibe comes out best at a more sedate pace, though he ably led the many schizoid changes in the Interrotto Intermezzo. The Finale was a showcase of the collective virtuosity of the orchestra, with all sections sending out Bartók’s bursts of dark notes with ardor and precision.

The program will be repeated at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Pritzker Pavilion.

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