A vibrant, eclectic Leonard Slatkin program hits and misses in Grant Park

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Eclecticism has always been one of conductor Leonard Slatkin’s hallmarks. Throughout his career, continuing in his positions today as music director of the on-the-rebound Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the National Orchestra of Lyons in southeast France, neglected works that were once popular, forgotten works by major composers, new pieces by his own contemporaries, all manner of American music, have been at the center of his repertoire and programming.

And such it is with his weekend program at the Grant Park Music Festival where he had been principal conductor for the summers of 1974 and 1975 and to which he returns now to mark the 80th season of popular free classical concerts. A French composer’s look at Spain, a concerto composed and played by an immigrant pianist from the Dominican Republic, Shostakovich’s rare 1964 cantata “The Execution of Stepan Razin” and, to close, Borodin’s “Polovtsian Dances” from his opera “Prince Igor” (and later from Broadway’s “Kismet”).

As the candid Slatkin himself has said, “Sometimes my ideas work, sometimes they don’t. But I think we always wind up sharing an adventure — me, the musicians, and the audience.” Friday’s overall program, to be repeated Saturday at 7:30 p.m., falls more into the “Hmmm” category, with some interesting contrasts and influences to think about but only one piece really worth hearing for both the work itself and its performance by Slatkin, the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus, and soloists.

But what a piece. Both bombastic and sprinkled with controlled irony, Shostakovich’s “Stepan Razin” sets the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s retelling of a legendary story of a true incident: a 17th century Cossack rebel is executed by the Tsar but his severed head still manages to mock the powerful ruler. Written in 1964, two years after the composer’s powerful 13th Symphony, a setting of parts of the same poet’s brutal indictment of anti-semitism, “Babi Yar,” and during the “thaw” after the death of the Soviet Union’s own tsar, Stalin, this is in great contrast to his earlier celebratory Stalinist works in the same genre.

New Orleans native bass-baritone Alfred Walker is both Stepan and narrator with men’s and women’s choruses, sometimes coming together in crowd scenes, in the 30-minute thunderbolt. Walker’s clear Russian diction and attractive baritonal quality (in a work written for a bass), made the singer highly effective; a true leader. The five sections of the continuous work are each like coiled springs of darkness and sarcasm. Slatkin gave the U.S. premiere of the piece at Grant Park as a guest in 1979. While it has understandably never entered the repertoire, it is well-crafted and worth hearing not only for Shostakovich completists. The fierce Yevtushenko poem appears in strong translation and well presented transliteration in the program book.

The rest of the program? As Slatkin, who turns 70 in several weeks, himself might say, Not so much. Emmanuel Chabrier’s 1883 curtain-raiser “Espana” was given a routine run-through with neither much of a Spanish feel or the French gauze the composer had added. Jazz pianist Michel Camilo, whom Slatkin first heard and met at the Blue Note in Manhattan in 1995, has long been an advocate of the highly percussive Dominican style of dance and jazz music, and Slatkin has commissioned orchestral works from him.

Parts of a solo encore of the composer’s own “Caribe” had all that his 2008 Concerto No. 2 “Tenerife” lacked — genuine energy, clear but complex rhythms, the tricky but seductive off-centeredness of Dominican music. The 25-minute large-scale work was all loud and monophonic, borrowed and banal, and Camilo was himself an indelicate interpreter of his own work. Latin jazz can fit with classical and orchestral forms — see Paquito D’Rivera — but not here. The closing Borodin was delivered much better, but also lacked any individual or characteristic oomph.

But the strong Shostakovich makes taking in at least that portion of the evening well worth it.

Grant Park Music Festival Slatkin Returns

Leonard Slatkin, conductor; with pianist Michel Camilo

Alfred Walker, bass-baritone; and Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus


Repeats July 26 at 7:30 p.m.

Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park

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