Review: Sultry skies or no, Swiss conductor excels in Grant Park debut

It's difficult enough for a first-time conductor at the Grant Park Music Festival to make a positive impression under the normal challenges that bedevil alfresco music-making at Millennium Park. But when you add merciless heat and withering humidity to the mix, you've got an even steeper grade few newcomers are prepared to scale successfully.

That was the situation Friday night at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, where Swiss conductor Thierry Fischer was making his Grant Park Orchestra debut under unusually trying weather conditions. How trying was it? Uncomfortable enough that the program order had to be changed and a half-hour intermission inserted near the end so as to give the hard-working musicians extra time to cool off even if it made for an oddly lopsided program.

It spoke eloquently for Fischer's professionalism that he was able to maintain cool efficiency under these barely tolerable conditions. Indeed, he secured remarkably clean, confident results in an attractive program of French and Swiss music few of the orchestra players could have been all that familiar with. Here is a conducting talent Chicago audiences deserve to hear again – preferably indoors.

A former flutist who began his tenure as music director of the Utah Symphony in 2009 and recently renewed his contract with that orchestra, Fischer conducted in clear, decisive beats and favored gestures that conveyed his ideas to the musicians with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of insight. This is precisely the sort of clear-eyed guidance the Grant Park players needed on a night when Millennium Park felt like a giant frying pan.

Is Fischer bidding to become the Ernest Ansermet of his generation? Certainly his championing of the works of Swiss composer Frank Martin, in concerts and on recording, drives home the connection. On Friday he offered one of Martin's finest pieces, the Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments (1949). Each instrument is treated as a soloist, individually and in groups, conversing in crisp, neo-classical lines that reveal the composer's propensity for clean-cut sonorities and lucid textures.

Fischer kept everything perking along agreeably, and there was deft and spirited interplay among Grant Park principal players Mary Stolper, flute; Nathan Mills, oboe; Gene Collerd, clarinet; Eric Hall, bassoon; Douglas Carlsen, trumpet; Jonathan Boen, horn; and Daniel Cloutier, trombone. Credit for the secure balance of soloists, string orchestra and percussion had to be shared equally between the conductor and the technicians in the sound booth.

Designed as the grand closing piece, Camille Saint-Saens' "Organ" Symphony instead became the concert's majestic middle portion.

This colorful French Romantic symphony has come in for a bad rap in some critical quarters, a reputation this ingeniously structured, imaginatively scored music doesn't merit.

True, this music cries out for a big, colorful pipe organ and a reverberant concert room to make its full effect. Some of the quieter pages, such as the pizzicato strings in the first movement, were all but lost to the ambient noise in and around the steamy park. So Friday's performance was necessarily compromised. But Fischer pulled out every stop he could in his energetic and full-blooded reading, and the orchestra musicians responded in kind.

David Schrader was playing an electronic organ with more raw power than refinement, perhaps, but he too gave it his all, and the sonic impact of the final pages was thrilling.

Hector Berlioz's "King Lear" Overture, a rarity new to the Grant Park repertory, concluded the concert in a blaze of brassy glory. Fischer brought to the fore the excitability that is so characteristic of the composer's music, and his orchestra dispatched it at fever pitch. The few rough patches of orchestral playing throughout the evening were minor and as fleeting as the hot breezes that wafted off the lake.

The program will be repeated at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Jay Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park, Michigan Avenue and Randolph Street; free; 312-742-7638, gpmf.org.

jvonrhein@tribune.com

Twitter @jvonrhein

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