Chicago's 75-Year-old Sonic Asset

June 05, 2009

As the Grant Park Music Festival celebrates its 75th season, it's a fitting moment to celebrate the fabled past and vibrant present of this happy marriage of municipal sponsorship and music.

Experiencing music in the city’s front yard as you picnic with attendees across a wide variety of ages and ethnicities, with the futuristic steel curls of architect Frank Gehry’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion soaring in harmony with the sounds coming off the stage, you have to believe this spectacular 24 ½ -acre, $475 million cultural playground is one of the great perks of living in or visiting downtown Chicago.

Now that Millennium Park’s star tenant, the Grant Park Music Festival, is about to launch its 75th anniversary season — the 10-week concert series begins Wednesday with Carlos Kalmar leading the Grant Park Orchestra in an early-evening program of Russian favorites — it’s a fitting moment to celebrate the fabled past and vibrant present of this happy marriage of municipal sponsorship and music.

What began as a test project to help out-of-work musicians during the Great Depression has become a vibrant populist festival that remains the only free city-funded outdoor classical concert series in the nation.

Six years in the making, the park’s otherworldly outdoor concert hall instantly became one of Chicago’s icons, right up there with the Sears Tower, when it opened in 2004.

Here, you can catch an eclectic mix of music — from Mozart to mariachi, Bruckner to Portuguese fado — you won’t hear anywhere else. The park has drawn an average of more than 3 million people each year.

The music has survived several band shells, a host of conductors and soloists and chorus members and managers, and outdoor vicissitudes that would have snapped the strings on Orpheus’ lyre. Old-timers recall a piano once fell through the rotting stage of a makeshift facility built for the 1933 World’s Fair. For decades, debates raged about the need to build a new and better shell for Grant Park concerts. But nothing was done until the opening of the Petrillo Music Shell in 1978, an adequate facility that lacked the quality sound system the Pritzker provides today.

Indeed, I don't find it a coincidence that the playing of the Grant Park Orchestra has taken on a greater luster and security now that it has moved to a congenial, covered space with state-of-the-art electronic sound reinforcement. Nor do I find it coincidental that everything the orchestra plays sounds better since Kalmar became principal conductor in 2000.

The orchestra is fortunate to have had some exceptional music directors over the years — think Leonard Slatkin and David Zinman — but none has enhanced its reputation more than the Uruguayan-born Austrian maestro.

More than a few conductors have been known to wilt under the pressure of preparing extremely diverse programs in Chicago's muggy summer months on a fraction of the rehearsal time available to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra during its regular season. Kalmar is not one of them.

His wide repertory, his ability to get to the heart of the matter and to inspire musicians to do their best work under sometimes oppressive weather conditions, has earned him the respect and admiration of his players and from Grant Park audiences in general.

“I have been very happy with the evolution of the orchestra from a good group of musicians to an excellent, tough-working, intense musical family that enjoys the fast-paced calendar we demand,” Kalmar observes in a chapter of the festival's lavish and beautiful 75th anniversary commemorative book, “Sounds of Chicago's Lakefront: A Celebration of the Grant Park Music Festival” ($39.95), to be released July 1.

“The chorus has been amazing in recent years, displaying qualities that make them one of the best choruses in America. [Chorus director] Christopher Bell has been the unifying asset that has made their development possible.” What pleases Kalmar perhaps the most about Grant Park audiences, he adds, is their “willingness to go with us wherever we take them.”

As a matter of fact, Kalmar, the orchestra, chorus and the various guest conductors and soloists will take listeners to quite a few wonderful places this summer.

If monumental symphonic masterpieces are your thing, you can hardly do better than the Ninth Symphonies of Mahler (Aug. 7–8) and Beethoven (Aug. 14–15). If you crave big choral works, don't miss Elgar’s fervent oratorio "The Dream of Gerontius" (July 31–Aug. 1). If your tastes in choral music run to something more intimate, then don’t miss Bell’s program of a cappella Americana (June 30 and July 2 at the adjacent Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph St.).

There’s plenty more, from Brazilian jazz singer Luciana Souza with the Luna Negra Dance Theater (July 22 and 24), to Gilbert and Sullivan favorites (July 10-11), to a re-creation of the first symphonic program that launched Grant Park Concerts in 1935 (July 1). This year, Grant Park will celebrate Independence Day with a Saturday-afternoon concert of patriotic pops July 4.

So, pack your picnic hamper and sunscreen, remember to bring along a cap, sweater or umbrella just in case, and head down to Millennium Park for another rewarding summer of music at one of America’s classiest outdoor festivals — 75 years young. Happy anniversary!

John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune