75 Seasons of Allegro Al Fresco

July 05, 2009

The Grant Park Music Festival marks a milestone as something of an urban miracle — an open-air concert series that's free and fabulous.

It's probably a phrase that we each first heard as small children and tried to decipher: "Don't take it for granted ..."

As the Grant Park Music Festival commemorates its 75th anniversary season with a beautifully illustrated and extensively researched hardcover coffee-table book -- as well as its usual 10 weeks of absolutely free concerts -- we are reminded again that Chicago is the only city left in America presenting a free, open-air, professional series of orchestral concerts each summer.

And as the book, Sounds of Chicago's Lakefront, and the memories of many a Chicagoan make clear, it is not just that such a series remains but that so many people in every one of the eight decades spanned by the Grant Park concerts have pushed and cajoled and even fought mightily to see to it that the series have the highest musical standards and, over the last decade, that it be presented not only in one of urban America's most beautiful settings but in a dedicated facility that has itself become an international architectural and acoustic triumph.

There's not a phrase or a part of a concept there that anyone could take for granted.

Even the book's authors and the presenters of the festival (these days a joint venture of the Chicago Park District, the City of Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs and a support group of private citizens, the Grant Park Orchestral Association) never could have anticipated how today's concerts would have so many parallels to the origins of the series back in 1935.

Unemployed musicians and workers. Concerns about neglect of culture. Debates over the role of unions. Battles over open spaces along the lakefront and their proper use and future. Questions of the appropriateness of government expenditures. Arguments about "elitism" vs. "populism" in the arts in general and in music in particular. All of these played out in the early years of the Great Depression and the first years of Franklin D. Roosevelt's first term as president, to say nothing about such colorful Chicago mayors as William Hale "Big Bill" Thompson, Anton Cermak and Edward J. Kelly.

Towering over all of these people, though, in every way but physically, was James Caesar Petrillo, the tiny, tough boss of the Chicago Federation of Musicians from 1922 and later, from 1940 to the late 1960s, the official and then unofficial and always unbending head of the American Federation of Musicians.

Petrillo, a Chicago native who played the trumpet and led dance bands, cut his teeth organizing the musicians in the city's Chinese restaurants and went on to lock up contracts with movie theaters, nightclubs, concert halls and opera houses, becoming a national legend along the way. Having lost battles to hold back sound pictures and keep live musicians in movie theaters, and watching even more of his members fall victims to the tanking economy, Petrillo got Mayor Kelly to appoint him to the newly consolidated Chicago Park District in 1934 and then to listen to his proposal that City Hall and the District bring music to the city's people -- and jobs to his members.

Kelly, who as president of the old South Park District Board had built and opened Soldier Field in the 1920s, understood Petrillo's potential political pressure as much as his vision and assented, if Petrillo could guarantee the crowds essential to both of their ambitions.

From the opening night in 1935 at the band shell erected for the 1933 Century of Progress World's Fair at the southern end of Grant Park, facing the Field Museum, Petrillo complied, bringing in such big names as Lily Pons, Rudy Vallee, Helen Morgan and Jascha Heifetz in the 1930s. In the 1940s he lured Paul Robeson, Mario Lanza, Chicago's own Benny Goodman and an 11-year-old conducting prodigy, Lorin Maazel, all the while moving the series toward the formation of a permanent orchestra in 1944.

The current Grant Park Orchestra -- Grammy-nominated, with its own series of six recordings (and counting) on Chicago-based Cedille Records, and with its increasingly renowned principal conductor Carlos Kalmar in his 10th season with the festival -- Wednesday offered a re-creation of Petrillo's opening night show, a potpourri of no fewer than nine different works from nine different composers ranging from the "Entry of the Guests" in Wagner's "Tannhaeuser" to the all-but-forgotten Frank W. Meacham's 1885 march medley "American Patrol" with its snatches of "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean," "Dixie" and "Yankee Doodle" as well as Meacham's own improvisation.

A listener was struck by several things as the two hours of French opera overtures, Scandinavian and Russian rhapsodies, and additional Americana went by. In the seating sections of the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, the long "front porch" of the Great Lawn and the lawn itself "protected" by the open canopy of designer Frank Gehry's trellis, families and lovers, married couples and groups of old friends and co-workers and children and babies (quiet ones) all communed with the music and the cool but very pleasant night. White, black, Asian and Latin, locals, tourists and accidental visitors with never a police officer or security guard in sight or needed.

And while the repertoire was intentionally old-fashioned, what playing Kalmar and the orchestra offered! In Glazunov's 1898 selections from his ballet score "Love's Trickery," concertmaster Jeremy Black and principal cello Walter Haman offered duets that would be the envy of any major full-season orchestra. Liszt's own orchestral transcription of his c. 1850 Second Hungarian Rhapsody made you forget that there ever had been a piano version. And when the Vienna-trained and -based Kalmar led Johann Strauss Jr.'s 1867 "On the Beautiful Blue Danube" you heard music, not cliche or parody, and awfully good music at that.

Though no performers remain from that first performance of this program 74 years ago, six players were saluted from the stage as having played in all three of Grant Park's venues: that beautiful old original shell down at Roosevelt Road, the "interim" Petrillo Bandshell that served "temporarily" for some 30 years at Jackson and Columbus, and the new Pritzker Pavilion. And they'll be back, as will Christopher Bell's stunning Grant Park Chorus, founded by the late Tom Peck in 1962, in the wonderful array of concerts that remain in a season that runs through Aug. 15.

It's not just Old Man Petrillo who should be proud of this continuity. And it's something that none of us should ever take for granted.

Andrew Patner, Chicago Sun Times