Review: Tzigane scores impressive Grant Park Orchestra debut

With few exceptions, Ravinia has not gone out of its way to provide exposure for young conductors who are making their way up the professional ladder and who have yet to become household names. Fortunately the Grant Park Music Festival and its principal conductor, Carlos Kalmar, have long considered doing so essential to the festival's artistic mission. And many a podium career has been advanced as a result.

Grant Park is giving a high-profile boost to the career of another such rising talent over the weekend at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. Making his Chicago and Grant Park Orchestra debuts was Eugene Tzigane, a 30-year-old conductor of American and Japanese parentage.

Thus far his engagements appear to have been mostly in Central Europe, where he is in his third season as principal conductor of the Northwest German Philharmonic Orchestra in Herford, Germany. Now that he has scored debuts with second-tier orchestras in Indiana, Oregon and New Jersey, it would seem to be only a matter of time before the bigger U.S. orchestras start knocking on his door.

Tzigane had his work cracked out for him here, having to prepare a challenging calling-card program in typically tight rehearsal time. But he did so most impressively, bringing freshness and energy to an attractively varied program that found him fully engaged with the musicians, and they with him. A holiday weekend throng numbering about 12,000, according to official estimate, took advantage of friendly skies and mild temperatures to pack the park for the concert on Friday night. The program is to be repeated on Saturday.

Tzigane began his program of music written in, or inspired by, the New World with William Bolcom's "Ragomania, A Classic Festival Overture," composed for the Boston Pops in 1982. Catchy, peppy and tuneful, the piece is a typically Bolcom-esque conflation of symphonic ragtime, jazz and lush lyricism, expertly scored for brawny brass, swinging strings and percussion players who at one point clap out their rhythms. The guest conductor infused the 10-minute overture with plenty of zip, making it an ideal curtain raiser for a concert in the great summer outdoors.

Samuel Barber's 1962 Piano Concerto is made of sterner stuff. The Pulitzer Prize-winning opus looks at the Romantic concerto tradition through a modernist prism (specifically Bartok and Prokofiev) although – Barber being Barber – melting lyricism is never far away.

Barber wrote the formidably difficult solo part for the late pianist John Browning, long its definitive champion, who introduced the concerto to Grant Park audiences in 1998 at, interestingly enough, the very same concerts that marked Kalmar's Grant Park debut. On Friday the solo duties fell to Alessio Bax, the gifted, Italian-born, New York-based pianist who was making his first appearance at the festival.

Bax had the measure of this knuckle-busting virtuoso piece. His winning account combined youthful bravura in the outer movements with an innate feel for the ebb and flow of melody in the central Canzone: Not even wailing fire trucks on nearby Michigan Avenue could mar his concentration. His fingerwork was incisive without degenerating into pounding, and the torrent of pianistic energy he unleashed in the explosive, toccata-like finale kicked up tremendous excitement. Let's have him back.

Barber's tricky rhythmic interplay between piano and orchestra makes this score the very devil to coordinate properly. But under Tzigane's firm, decisive leadership the orchestra came very close to matching Bax's rhythmic acuity and propulsive drive. No wonder the pavilion audience gave the performers a roaring, standing O.

Tzigane came into his own after intermission with a Dvorak "New World" Symphony that proved as dramatic as it was idiomatic. He shaped the arching melodic contours with a sure sense of destination, pointed climaxes deftly and finessed transitions sensitively. All the way through he drew on the solidity of the brass choir, a warm, singing tone in the strings and finely articulated woodwinds, including Judith Kulb with her dulcet English horn solo in the slow movement. Without imposing any idiosyncrasies on this thrice-familiar symphony, the music emerged feeling fresh and newly-minted.

Too bad the audience could not resist launching its applause before the final chord had a chance to die away. Never mind. Tzigane merits a return engagement in his own right.

jvonrhein@tribune.com

Twitter @jvonrhein

CHICAGO

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