Saturday, July 11, 2015

'A Sondheim Celebration' Provides Perfect Night Music (with and without lyrics) at Millennium Park -- Chicago Theater / Classical Review

Theater / Classical Review

A Sondheim Celebration
Grant Park Orchestra
Paul Gemignani - Guest Conductor
Elizabeth Stanley and Alexander Gemingnani - Vocalists
Tedd Firth - Piano
Jay Pritzker Pavilion, Millenium Park, Chicago
July 10 (also July 11)

I've written often and extensively on this blog about my exhaustive esteem for the work, life and wonderfully insightful erudition of Stephen Sondheim.

In addition to having seen (and in many cases reviewed, if since 2010) most of his masterpieces, multiple times--including West Side Story*, Gypsy*, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd, Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods and Passion--I've attended several live conversations with the composer/lyricist and a number of Sondheim revues or tribute concerts. (*Sondheim only wrote lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy; he wrote the music as well for all other shows.)

Earlier this year, I found Porchlight Theatre's production of Sondheim on Sondheim--which interspersed songs with video commentary from its subject--to be especially outstanding.

But I never tire of hearing Sondheim's music well-performed in any venue, and nicely coinciding with getting a bit of dinner at the Taste of Chicago, the Grant Park Orchestra's A Sondheim Celebration at Pritzker Pavilion made for idyllic setting on a beautiful night.

And the music was rather sublime as well.

As a Sondheim salute and something of a retrospective, Friday's performance--repeating Saturday--wasn't quite as far-reaching nor exhilarating as The Birthday Concert from 2010, available on DVD and Blu-Ray. (I did not see that NYC concert in person.)

Yet sharing the same conductor, Paul Gemignani, who has worked with Sondheim for well over 40 years, it was pretty darn terrific.

Though the evening wasn't quite as starry as the Sondheim: 80 tribute I saw at Ravinia back in 2010--which featured Broadway legends Patti LuPone, Audra McDonald, George Hearn and Michael Cerveris--I still recall ruing that concert lasting barely an hour, or about half of this one.

At Millennium Park, with its gorgeous Frank Gehry-designed bandshell, admission was charged for the front of the pavilion, but hundreds of seats were free--I was pleasantly surprised to be able to avail myself of one--in addition to the lawn.

And it wasn't as though Broadway-level talent wasn't on display.

Paul Gemignani not only well-led the excellent Grant Park Orchestra but was joined in the Windy City by his son Alexander, a Broadway vet with numerous credits, who was complemented by the similarly accomplished Elizabeth Stanley (I happened to have seen her a few years back in a touring version of Xanadu).

Also accompanied by Tedd Firth on piano, the younger Gemignani and Stanley sounded about as good as one could want, together and separately, on such Sondheim gems as "Old Friends," "Too Many Mornings," "Being Alive" and an encore of "Broadway Baby."

"Sooner of Later," which Sondheim penned for the Dick Tracy movie, was resplendently delivered by Stanley, accompanied only by Firth and a bassist or two.

She was also wonderful on "The Miller's Son" and "Send in the Clowns," both from A Little Night Music, while Alex Gemignani mastered one of my very favorite Sondheim compositions, "Finishing the Hat" from Sunday in the Park with George.

But what elevated this concert from a simple--though in itself quite satisfying--showcase of wonderful songs, demonstrating Sondheim's delectable, sophisticated lyrics, splendidly sung by great vocalists in front of a superb orchestra, was the way it was programmed to intrinsically leverage the symphonic talent on stage.

In addition to the nine songs magnificently handled by the vocalists, Paul Gemignani--who served as the Music Director for numerous Sondheim shows on Broadway--conducted the Grant Park Orchestra on instrumental suites from Into the Woods, A Little Night Music, Sunday in the Park with George and Sweeney Todd, as well as the opening "The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea," a tune from Pacific Overtures that has no lyrics.

Not only did the suites sound exquisite, with lesser known passages blending with the familiar strains of "No One Is Alone," "Children Will Listen," "Send in the Clowns," "Sunday" and "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," they amplified the brilliance of Sondheim as a musical composer, which is sometimes overshadowed by regard for his universally sage and incisive lyrics.

Along with a whole lot of other joy brought to my ears, I particularly loved how pianist Firth lifted the beautiful "Johanna"--from Sweeney Todd--rather liltingly.

Unlike at a 2006 Sondheim tribute concert in the same place, as well as at multiple times at Ravinia, the now 85-year-old maestro did not himself make an appearance.

Nonetheless, more than a little--rather spectacular--night music made for a wonderful Friday in the Park with Stephen, or at least his terrifically talented collaborators and interpreters.

If there's still time to get to tonight's 8:00pm performance, I strongly suggest you do.


Anonymous said...

Sondheim himself was there on Saturday!!!

Anonymous said...

Just pointing out that "Advantages" does have lyrics, but it is also well-suited to instrumental performances, as here.