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Billy Childs comes to the Grant Park Music Festival

Cheers to the Grant Park Music Festival for making sweet lemonade from some bitter, bitter lemons.

When the festival announced its 2020 season, the lineup’s crowning jewels featured a mini-residency by Grammy-winning jazz pianist and composer Billy Childs. The invite would culminate in a violin concerto co-commission for Childs collaborator and Grant Park Music Festival favorite Rachel Barton Pine, with Grant Park being the first to present it.

To state the obvious, it didn’t pan out that way. As an extra twist of the knife, the vagaries of post-shutdown shuffles meant Grant Park became the fourth and last co-commissioner to present Childs’ new concerto. So, the festival wisely offered Childs a consolation prize: How about another commission, this time a string quartet?

Thus, July 15-17 became Billy Childs Weekend at Grant Park, with the composer leading a master class between premieres of his “Violin Concerto No. 2″ and quartet, “Variations on a Rondo.” Nor was he the only repeat headliner last week: Pine also replaced infirm percussionist She-e Wu for concerts July 12-13 on short notice, just as she did for violinist Midori at Ravinia last summer.

Touring violinists perform valiantly in the festival’s tricky open-air setting all the time, eking out minutiae in phrasing and dynamics against DuSable Lake Shore Drive and Michigan Avenue’s rowdy counterpoints. But, as Saturday’s performance reaffirmed, few others dominate the Pritzker Pavilion like the Chicago-based Pine, because few others know it so intricately. Even with mics positioned a couple of yards away, Pine’s sound was both unflagging and attentively modulated, spinning a dizzying spectrum of dynamics and phrasing from full, uncompromising bows. Pine’s encore — of her own colorful, Bach-y arrangement of Astor Piazzólla’s Tango-Etude No. 3 “con Libertango” — showcased more of the same, and dazzlingly.

As Childs notes in his concert program, his is as classical a concerto as they come, each movement cast in traditional ternary structures interpolated by cadenzas. And those cadenzas are magisterial — sometimes sinuously lyrical, sometimes churning and dense with double stops. At the orchestra’s helm, conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya — transitioning from long tenures at the Norwegian Radio and Fort Worth symphonies to pedagogy, much like Grant Park honcho Carlos Kalmar — shifted the weight of Childs’ ensemble writing responsively throughout, especially its luxurious writing for woodwinds.

Listeners searching for jazzy sonics in the work will mostly come up short. The closest is extended chord voicings that themselves jump out inconsistently, acting more or less like punctuation marks in the outer movements (the triumphal “Romance/Rejoice” and the more restless “Resilience”). Meanwhile, the inner movement, “Remorse,” is less lament than dusky landscape, progressing misterioso through thatchlike harmonies and meandering melodies. From Pine’s duo with principal cellist Walter Haman to its fragile, lyrical end, it’s a stirring noir excursion.

That the concerto’s few weak points stick out — a slack string canon opening and a third movement with fake-out endings that march on far too long — is a testament to Childs overall achievement. Hearing it alone, one wouldn’t have guessed his “Variations on a Rondo,” performed by Grant Park’s Project Inclusion fellows on Sunday, was more or less an extra goodie.

The “Variations” pack a whole lot in its eight-minute span, echoing Baroque courantes and the post-tonal flirtations of Ernest Bloch and early Schoenberg. But it all stitched together most sensibly. As its title promises, a 7/8 theme — first played solo by consistently excellent cello fellow Lindsey Sharpe — spawns various re-modulated, reharmonized and reorchestrated alter egos. Violinist Gabriela Lara was also a special standout, demonstrating anew why the talented young Chicago College of Performing Arts grad bagged the Chicago Symphony’s inaugural string fellowship last month.

Marketers gotta market, but Sunday’s otherwise riveting CenterStage program shouldn’t have been named after Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings” — the most recognizable work on the program, sure, but less engrossing, and engrossingly performed, than the gauzy neoclassical stylings of Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s “Sinfonietta No. 1″ (1955) and the tenebrous Romanticism of Elfrida Andrée’s “Andante quasi recitativo” (1877). They were also, one hopes, curiosity-whetting entrees to these singular composers: Perkinson was a co-founder of the country’s first racially integrated orchestra, the Symphony of the New World, and Andrée was a pioneering organist and feminist activist in her native Sweden.

On the contrary, Victor Agudelo’s “La madre de agua” and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, “Eroica” were far too luminous to be overshadowed by Childs’ concerto Saturday night. Colombia-born and -based, Agudelo recently expanded the 10-minute “La madre de agua” from a chamber piece to a work for symphony orchestra at Harth-Bedoya’s request. It’s hard to imagine this exhilarating, imaginative work being half as affecting in a pared-down instrumentation — its accented interjections and zesty orchestration, including zither-like strokes across the strings of Grant Park’s concert grand, practically beg for a full orchestra treatment. And Saturday’s was the most noble, balanced and eloquently narrative “Eroica” I’ve heard in a while, marshaled by the superlatively insightful Harth-Bedoya.

Making the new familiar, and the familiar new? That’s Grant Park at its best.

Program repeats 6:30 p.m. July 25 at South Shore Cultural Center, 7059 S. South Shore Dr., free. The Project Inclusion quartet will perform Childs’ “Variations on a Rondo” 6:30 p.m. July 28 at Eleanor Boathouse, 2828 S. Eleanor St., free; more information at

Hannah Edgar is a freelance writer.

The Rubin Institute for Music Criticism helps fund our classical music coverage. The Chicago Tribune maintains complete editorial control over assignments and content.

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