Outstanding music-making in the opening concert of Chicago’s 2024 Grant Park Music Festival 

United StatesUnited States Grant Park Music Festival [1] – Elgar, Holst: Christian Tetzlaff (violin), Lauren Decker (contralto), Grant Park Music Festival Chorus and Orchestra / Carlos Kalmar (conductor). Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park, Chicago, 15.6.2024. (JLZ)

Carlos Kalmar conducts contralto Lauren Decker in Holst’s The Cloud Messenger © Charles Osgood

Elgar – Violin Concerto in B minor, Op.61
HolstThe Cloud Messenger, Op.30

The first Saturday evening concert in Chicago’s Grant Park Music Festival had two large-scale Edwardian compositions on the program: Elgar’s Violin Concerto in B minor (1910) and Holst’s The Cloud Messenger (1913).  Christian Tetzlaff was the soloist for the Elgar, and his approach blended virtuosic technique with solid musicianship in an interpretation that made the piece vivid and exciting.

The technical details of the work were extremely clear in this outdoor setting. Tetzlaff gave shape to the first movement’s sometimes sprawling structure with a wide range of dynamics and an even sound throughout the registers that Elgar employed. Kalmar’s careful attention to detail was evident in his responsiveness to both soloist and orchestra as he brought it to a breathtaking conclusion.

The second movement was impressive for the prominence of the violin’s rich lower register, a feature that Tetzlaff used to great effect. In this performance, Kalmar emphasized the lyricism that echoes at times the ‘Nimrod’ section of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. It was an opportunity to enjoy Tetzlaff’s mastery of the score and his instrument. With the third movement, the technical demands of the piece benefited from the violinist’s note-perfect precision. The intensity that he brought to the finale kept the audience rapt through the last note. It was a pleasure to hear this famous concerto in the hands of such a gifted interpreter as Tetzlaff.

Carlos Kalmar conducting Christian Tetzlaff in Elgar’s Violin Concerto © Charles Osgood

The second half of the program brought Holst’s rare The Cloud Messenger to Chicago audiences. This cantata-like piece is a large-scale canvas that has the unique position of being the work which Holst completed just before The Planets. While some point to its weaknesses in contrast to the popular appeal that The Planets achieved, this performance gave a solid reading that invites one to come back to it. The text, which is based on the composer’s translation of the Hindu poet Kālidāsa’s Meghadūta, describes the efforts of an exiled soul to invoke a cloud to bear a message of love to his wife. Within that premise, Kālidāsa expresses the power of love that distance cannot hinder. Instead, love transcends the reality of exile that the husband and wife endure, and Holst captured that sentiment well in this finely crafted work. Careful listening to the score reveals stylistic traits that Holst used in The Planets and elsewhere, as in the wordless choral sections that are common to both, or the percussive ostinato passages that enhanced the sung text.

Kalmar’s persuasive reading gave full rein to the lush chromatic harmonies and rich scoring in this neglected piece. The tutti passages for full orchestra benefited from the careful voicing that made the textures resound. In the chamber-music like sections that anticipate, in a sense, the approach that Mahler would use in some parts of Das Lied von der Erde, the orchestra responded attentively to Kalmar’s direction.

The same may be said of the Grant Park Festival Chorus. The choral textures had good definition, although at times the diction could have made more of Holst’s text. It was particularly good to hear contralto/dramatic mezzo-soprano Lauren Decker in the solo passages. Decker commanded the part with fitting style, from the articulate mid-range passages through the full low notes that sound as if they were composed expressly for her voice.

All in all, the details needed for a successful revival were evident throughout the Holst performance, just as they were with Elgar’s Violin Concerto. Over the years, the Grant Park Music Festival has become known for including standard repertoire as well as for programming new or unfamiliar works, and that was the case this evening. It was a night of outstanding music-making, and an exceptional way to open the new season as conductor Carlos Kalmar celebrates his twenty-fifth and final year in leading the Grant Park Music Festival.

James L. Zychowicz

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