Une Soirée musicale

By James Chang and Richard Mazuski

What do the following have in common?

  • A Viennese composer writing in the French operetta style
  • A Viennese composer writing a symphony in French Classical style
  • A French composer paying homage to Bach
  • A French composer vacationing in Italy and writing about it

They all had a place in a Grant Park Music Festival concert on Friday July 24th!

An interesting program consisting of a Suppé overture, a Mozart symphony, a Saint-Saëns piano concerto, and a relatively obscure Bizet symphony.

Suppé: Overture: A Morning, Noon, and Night in Vienna

Just by lucky coincidence, one of the featured Snapchat live stories on that day was Vienna:

Vienna in Live Snapchat Stories

It didn’t help

Needless to say, modern day Vienna is a little different from its Habsburg days. The piece, in true 19th century operetta fashion, opens with a flashy intro, followed by a long, extended cello solo over light pizzicato accompaniment.  Principal cellist, Walter Haman, played it delightfully, sprinkling choice slides throughout, lending it an appropriately cheesy sentimentality. The main section of the overture combined pyrotechnics with pleasant tunes, both played expertly by the orchestra. Greatly appreciated were the melodramatic gestures from esteemed opera conductor Emmanuel Villaume, which imbued the overture with ebullient jocosity, particularly humorous as the piece rushed to a dizzying finish.

Mozart: Symphony No. 31, “Paris”

[We decided not to list the Köchel number above because it’s complicated]

A young Mozart wrote this in 1778, or as we like to say, “I’m 22 and I’ve written 31 symphonies; what have you accomplished?”

Unusually, the orchestra did not reduce their numbers for this. It is, however, known that Mozart had access to large forces for his Parisian première, so the full ensemble supplied the then-French taste for “noisy” symphonies. Not only is it noisy, it’s virtuosic, demanding quick finger work from the violins and a solid ensemble, which this orchestra delivered.

However, it’s unclear whether the balancing was fine or if the engineers overbalanced the violins over the rest of the ensemble. This is the main difficulty with reviewing an outdoor concert.  Audiences hear what’s piped into the large array of on-stage microphones and out through the huge speakers hanging on the sides of Pritzker Pavilion. There are people working a mixing board in the middle of the seating bowl, and they frequently play with the knobs and sliders. How do we tell how the balance of the orchestra is without being affected by the mixing board?

Whatever the case, in our experience, the violins sounded quite loud, and the timpani (of all instruments?!) did not punch through the texture. Alas, even some of the elegant woodwind solos were lost in the dense texture of 20+ violins.

Some additional notes about this performance:

  • The audience clapped at the conclusion of a very rousing first movement. We have no complaints 🙂
  • The andante wasn’t a crawling tempo, which is nice. Many conductors often take Classical middle movements too slow, despite the fact that andante derives from a verb meaning “to go,” not “to saunter.”
  • There was some great horn playing, particularly during the sustained high notes. That’s rough. (Jon Boen was principal; NU represent!)
  • With the third movement, we’re back in the land of fast and furious playing, just what Parisians like, which the orchestra handles so well. Everything was tightly-knit and well-delivered.

Saint-Saëns: Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor

This was certainly the most well-known of the works on this concert. Fantastic pedal point right in the beginning with great dissonances. Charles-Camille sure knew how to write immediately and lastingly appealing music.

After a great pianistic introduction, the first orchestral tutti entrance (a dramatic G minor chord) was incredibly anticlimactic. We believe this was a sound engineering mishap, and we noticed the engineers fixing the balance on the mixing board, and indeed there was a noticeable difference as the piece went on.

Andrew von Oeyen, the soloist, is a newish face, but we will hopefully be seeing more of him in the future. He demonstrated some scintillating, brilliant technique without sacrificing the gravitas of the outer movements. The flashy second movement was executed effortlessly! The third movement (a presto tarantella) was taken at a rapid tempo, but orchestra and soloist managed it with aplomb, and the coda was super exciting as a result.

Among us, there was controversy over the articulation of the trills in the development. On the one hand, JC didn’t quite like that he punched each one. He thinks there’s a reason Saint-Saëns chose not to write accents over every trill, reckoning that the repetitive nature is textural accompaniment to the strings chorale. RM enjoyed the constant articulation. He thinks the articulation should remain as it was when the motif was first introduced, i.e. accented, as it allowed the important motif to be heard above the changing orchestral textures, reckoning that its insistence adds to the boiling-over tension of the development. Whom do you agree with? Leave a comment below!

saint-saens concerto no accents

Judge for yourself

Bizet: Roma (“Symphony No. 2”)

This is a pretty obscure selection, but it turned out to be quite the enjoyable conclusion to the program. When Bizet won the coveted Prix de Rome, he was given the opportunity to study at the French Academy in Rome for two years, followed by a year of intense study in Germany. Bizet flaked on the German study, and stayed in Italy for the time. There, he lived large off the pension from his prize and developed the idea for a four movement symphony, each movement based upon his impression of an Italian city. The development and fine-tuning of this work was a tortuous journey through the rest of Bizet’s life, and the entire piece was never performed in its final form during his lifetime.

We personally found it surprising that this piece isn’t more highly regarded, as it was immediately accessible, beginning with a chorale for four horns. Naturally, Boen sang through his high notes in the chorale. Overall, we think the whole first movement used the horns really well. At one point, the trombones brought the tone with a really nice and thick seventh-position E. It’s too bad the trombones weren’t used more (though they weren’t just sitting there the whole time either). The second movement, generally regarded as the superior movement, was great fun, almost like the second movement from the Saint-Saëns from before. It begins with a wonderful fugato, and adding a gorgeous second theme and brilliant splashes of color, it is definitely worth a listen. Villaume and the GPMF Orchestra gave a particularly spirited account.

The third movement was beautiful, though a bit ponderous and long-winded towards the end, with RM zoning out through it.  This could be what caused some critics to say that it is an incomplete piece, and that it gets dull.  However, the fourth movement (a thrilling Neapolitan tarantella) featured some amazing harmonies and very virtuosic violin playing!

Although Bizet was never satisfied with this piece, Mahler seemed to enjoy it enough to give it its Vienna première in December of 1898, a nice bookend to this Franco-centric program.

Overall, this concert proved to be a wonderful vehicle to introduce us to a new cool piece (the Bizet), offer interesting interpretations of classics (Mozart, SS), and give us some summertime fun (the Suppé, with choreography!) – JC, RM

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