Classical Warfare: Grant Park Music Festival vs. Ravinia

May 28, 2010

Which venue is worth your time and money? We're coming down on the side of the Grant Park Music Festival.

It's summer, and you want to get your highbrow on at an outdoor classical music venue. We don't blame you for the urge to succumb to the lure of fancy instruments.

During indoor classical season, it can be intimidating to get all gussied up, pay a pile of dough and head for Orchestra Hall to hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. We understand. But in summertime, everything is different. As the detective said in "Body Heat," "Because of the heat, people go crazy — they think that the ordinary rules don't apply." And it's true. There's something about baggy linen trousers and flip-flops that destuffs classical music.

We're lucky here in Chicagoland because in summertime, the CSO decamps for the Ravinia Festival, and Grant Park Music Festival kicks into gear. In an ideal world, you would find time for both, as we do, every summer. But what if you had to choose? We're going to face them off for you.

Musicianship

Even the most stalwart, membership card-carrying GPMF devotee will admit the Chicago Symphony gets the nod. It is one of the world's greatest orchestras, after all. But don't think that Grant Park is a slouch, and merely worth the money (free). It's an excellent ensemble that, very often, delivers the goods in a way almost as satisfactory as its iconic neighbor.

Advantage: CSO

Ambition

Local classical cognoscenti have often said that the need to sell tickets makes the CSO conservative in its programming choices. Possibly. But can you ever argue with the classics, perfectly played? This season at Ravinia Festival, there's some Mozart, the complete Beethoven Piano Concertos, some string quartet excellence and nothing that will startle or vex. Which some say is precisely the point. What you will get is the amazing experience of hearing a spectacular orchestra, doing what it does best, in a downright bucolic setting.

On the other hand, the Grant Park Music Festival folks have lost their minds. There is some excellent programming, including the Beethoven Mass in C Major, the Lutoslawski Concerto for Orchestra, the Dvorak Requiem and the massive, season-ending Mahler No. 2 "Resurrection" symphony.

Even if the orchestra doesn't quite hit a home run, the opportunity to hear these works is compelling, and you can't beat the price. Also on the docket is a potentially cool collaboration with the great kora master Toumani Diabate (Aug. 11), and gather the kids for "Planet Earth Live" (July 21), in which the orchestra will accompany a high-def showing of selected clips from the series.

Advantage: Grant Park

Price

This one isn't a complete slam dunk because while the Grant Park Music Festival is free, it doesn't have to be. We know. Why would you pay for something that you can get for free? Because you want primo seating, so that you can hear. Millennium Park's sound system is exceptional, but the closer you are to the stage, the more you hear the orchestra's natural sound. So yes, you can stroll up and get a free seat, or spread your blanket on the lawn and take it all in. But if you're all about the tunes, pony up. You can buy a Summer membership for $135 per person, which buys the right to sit in a reserved area, or a Premium membership for $235, which gets you seats in an even nicer reserved area.

Neither is as nice as Ravinia's Pavilion. Still, we're coming down on the side of the Grant Park Music Festival. This wouldn't have been the case some years ago when execution didn't match ambition. But now, even if you opt for a membership, it's still less expensive than a pair of killer Pavilion seats at Ravinia ($80 each for Joshua Bell with the CSO).

We love, and will always love the CSO. But if you only can choose one, you'll find us at the Pritzker Pavilion.

Two must-sees:
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
When: 5 p.m. July 11
Where: Ravinia Festival
Price: $10 and $25; 847-266-5100 or ravinia.org
Why: Even though only lawn seats are left, the lineup includes Gershwin's rippin' good Concerto in F.

Grant Park Music Festival
When: 6:30 p.m. Aug. 20, 7:30 p.m. Aug. 21
Where: Pritzker Pavilion
Price: Free; 312-742-7638 or grantparkmusicfestival.com
Why: Because it's the Mahler No. 2, with augmented orchestra, singers and chorus. Stand back.

Kevin Williams, Chicago Tribune