Grant Park Festival takes it to the parks

August 02, 2013

By Andrew Patner, The Chicago Sun-Times

The founders of the Grant Park Music Festival would have been grinning from ear to ear if from 1935 they could have seen to this week of free concerts in South Shore, along the downtown lakefront, and in Columbus Park, hard by Chicago’s western border with Oak Park.

For the idea, born in the Great Depression, that people deserve to hear great classical music for free and that trained musicians deserve paying work, could not have been more apparent on three consecutive beautiful evenings earlier this week. The elegant 1916 Marshall & Fox South Shore Cultural Center, Frank Gehry’s 2004 instant landmark Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, and the Refectory nestled in Jens Jensen’s 1920 invented prairie masterwork in Austin, all hosted concert nights this week.

Millennium Park has proven to be an even more attractive and popular venue for the Grant Park Orchestra than its own planners had hoped. But the festival, in keeping with its earlier heritage as a Chicago Park District enterprise, tries to take concerts to the city’s neighborhoods. Its award-winning Grant Park Chorus is more portable and certainly less expensive to transport, and that group’s annual a cappella appearances at area houses of worship and park buildings are highlights of GPMF summers filled with highlights.

For his 12th summer as chorus director, Christopher Bell Wednesday night assembled an intense and intensely varied hour of choral pieces from Britain, Lithuania, Russia, Estonia and theUnited States (even Chicago) — sacred and secular and in five languages. The chorus has been a brilliant pendant of the festival since Thomas Peck founded it in 1962. Bell has consistently built on and refined the group’s legacy, and the city is fortunate to have it as one of the three internationally regarded full-size professional choruses along with those of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Thursday evening’s program on the West Side was sung to an overflow audience with 100 or more souls also seated outside on the terrace above Jensen’s “prairie river” lagoon. Tuesday’s performance on the South Side was said to be similarly packed. The resonant peaked-roof, yellow-brick structure had an appropriately powerful acoustic for the “Songs of Praise and Passion” that Bell had assembled. “Passionate, because I am passionate about them,” the cheeky and expert Scottish and Irish conductor told the crowd.

The program showed off both the strength and flexibility of the 100-member ensemble with especially interesting work coming in the unusual rhythms and techniques of the Roman Catholic liturgical settings of Lithuanian Vytautas Miskinis (b. 1954) and the striking pulse and sounds of Estonian love poetry in two pieces by Veljo Tormis (b. 1930). Along with early 20th-century pieces of Hubert Parry and Rachmaninoff, as well as more recent ones of Colin Mawby and Steven Sametz, Bell led young Roosevelt University-based composer Stacy Garrop’s 2004 three Edna St. Vincent Millay “Sonnets of Desire, Longing and Whimsy” in performances appropriately earth-shaking or teasingly jolly.

Wednesday night, principal conductor Carlos Kalmar led the Grant Park Orchestra at its downtown outdoor home in the festival’s first presentation of Anton Bruckner’s early and massive C minor Symphony No. 2, using the most recent and fresh, 2007 edition of the so-called “1877 version” of the self-doubting artist’s frequently revised work. The playing was at an extraordinarily high level even for this excellent orchestra, and Kalmar had pacing, massing and flowing line wholly in his hands and ever as appropriate. To be among thousands of people of all colors, shapes and ages listening to a rarely played work (even the CSO, a major Bruckner orchestra, has programmed it only three times in the past 35 years) lasting one hour, and by a composer that many had not heard of and certainly had not heard in live performance before, was a deeply moving experience.

The Chorus and Orchestra will be heard together again in the music of Schubert, Aug. 9 and 10, and John Adams. Aug. 16 and 17, all at the Pritzker. Admission is free.

Andrew Patner is the critic-at-large for WFMT-FM (98.7).