With Kalmar at helm, Grant Park looks to another summer of good music in a grand setting

June 14, 2011

by John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune

When Carlos Kalmar gives the downbeat for the opening concert of the 77th Grant Park Music Festival on Wednesday night at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, a great deal more will be celebrated than merely the start of his first season in his new dual capacity as principal conductor and artistic director.

That's because the 10 summers during which the Uruguayan-born Austrian conductor has shaped the musical fortunes of the Grant Park Orchestra have marked a period of unprecedented artistic and attendance growth at what remains the only cultural and municipal partnership of its kind among the nation's summer classical music festivals.

The parallel rise of Kalmar's orchestra and director Christopher Bell's Grant Park Chorus to the front ranks speaks to their shared ability to remain focused within a tight, 10-week schedule of rehearsals and performances in the state-of-the-art pavilion.

Indeed, the adventuresome programming Grant Park presents for free (reserved seating comes with a modest membership fee) gives the downtown Chicago fest a decisive advantage over its bigger, fancier, pricier, more heavily marketed competitor on the North Shore, Ravinia – at least in terms of symphonic programming.

Add the fact that Millennium Park has become a spectacularly inviting tourist destination – attracting more than 20 million people since its opening in 2004 – and you have a success story few cities of comparable size could duplicate. (The only problem nobody has been able to solve – apart from the vagaries of Chicago heat and humidity – is how to fully insulate Grant Park performances from the infernal traffic and aerial noises of summer in the city.)

Kalmar has built a reputation for being among the best orchestra builders in the business, in Chicago as well as in Portland, where the Oregon Symphony, the orchestra he has headed since 2003, garnered a rave review from the New York Times last month following its Carnegie Hall debut under his baton.

The brisk, 53-year-old conductor radiates paternal pride when speaking about the progress the Grant Park ensemble has made under his watch, and about his plans for this year's festival.

"I would say about 70-75 percent of the players are the same as when I started my tenure here in 2000, which means the orchestra has been growing artistically through the joint effort of all of us," Kalmar says. "I'm very happy about what this magnificent orchestra has accomplished, despite our very crazy and demanding rehearsal schedule. The artistic level at which we play is very high, and that goes for the chorus as well."

Kalmar described his working relationship with the Belfast-born Bell (who divides his summers between the Grant Park and the Edinburgh Festival choruses) as a melding of different personalities with common musical standards.

"We work in our parallel worlds but we also work jointly on various projects throughout the summer, and that's why we can put on some really remarkable choral performances," the conductor explains. "Christopher is so crystal-clear in what he does and what he wants. Every year we can keep him in Chicago is a blessing."

In fact, some of the most tempting fare in the summer Grant Park schedule is choral in nature.

The weekend program on Friday and Saturday nights holds Mendelssohn's rarely heard Symphony No. 2 ("Lobgesang"), along with Schoenberg's early "Friede auf Erden." The Requiem settings of Faure and Verdi will follow on July 22-23 and Aug. 19-20, respectively. Bell will bring his chorus to the adjacent Harris Theater for Music and Dance June 28 and 30 for an interesting program of a newer American works that will be recorded for what promises to be the chorus' first a cappella CD.

No aficionado of late-Romantic musical opulence will want to miss Kalmar's Grant Park premiere of the Austrian composer Franz Schmidt's rarely-heard masterpiece of 1935-37, the oratorio "The Book with Seven Seals," on Aug. 12-13.

This grandly scaled setting of passages from The Book of Revelation has been close to Kalmar's heart ever since he played violin in performances of the work while still a teenager. Years later, he says, it was the first big piece he ever conducted professionally.

"The work is really difficult, a huge undertaking, and we cannot rely on any of the chorus members or musicians to have ever performed it before. I would never have attempted it if I didn't have a great orchestra and superb chorus. I will be very curious how our audience reacts to this beautiful piece."

There's plenty more interesting music on tap this summer at Grant Park, including Mahler's great song-symphony, "Das Lied von der Erde" (July 1-2); Sibelius' epic "Kullervo" symphony (July 29-30); a Kalmar program of Latin American orchestral rarities (June 24-25); and a concert featuring jazz violinist Regina Carter, as both soloist and conductor (June 22).

The guest roster includes conductors Andrew Grams, Hannu Lintu, Alondra de la Parra, Kwame Ryan and the distinguished Polish composer and conductor, Krzysztof Penderecki. Soloists include Chicago violinist Jennifer Koh, guitarist David Russell and members of Lyric Opera's Ryan Opera Center.

The administration is in the final phase of interviews to fill the executive director's post vacated by Elizabeth Hurley in February when she moved across Monroe Street to become vice president for development at the Art Institute of Chicago.

The kind of CEO Kalmar would like to see installed in the job is an artistic innovator with whom he would enjoy a close working relationship similar to what he had with James Palermo before Palermo left the post in 2009 to become president of the Colorado Symphony. A new executive director is expected to be announced by the end of the season.

WFMT-FM 98.7 will broadcast the opening concert of the Grant Park Music Festival season live on Wednesday night, with other broadcasts planned throughout the summer. The season runs through Aug. 20. For a complete schedule, call 312-742-7638 or visit grantparkmusicfestival.com.