GPMF focuses on America in the 1930s

June 29, 2009

Grant Park Music Festival tightened the focus on its American lens to look back exclusively on the 1930s

You can't accuse the Grant Park Music Festival of ignoring American music, not with its annual Independence Day celebration on the horizon this weekend or the return Tuesday of emcee Bill McGlaughlin's musicological exposition "Made in America."

Friday night at the Harris Theatre, the GPMF tightened the focus on its American lens to look back exclusively on the 1930s, the same decade the free, city-funded outdoor festival was launched 75 years ago. As a bonus, cultural historian and Chicago fixture Ted Samuelson strolled out on both sides of intermission to provide helpful historical contexts.

Programming American music often results from tunnel vision, which rarely ventures outside the dozen or so predictable works. This hasn't been the case under the festival's directors and principal conductor Carlos Kalmar's supervision. Even with throngs of impressionable ears taking in a free concert, the lively Uruguay-born Austrian offered the unlikely music of Leo Sowerby, John Alden Carpenter and William Grant Still -- works that Kalmar announced we'd likely not hear again anytime soon in Chicago.

Still's "Afro American" Symphony is better in theory than in practice. One of the few black "classical" composers during the Jazz Age, the Mississippi-born maestro had a natural gift for incorporating the blues and other local vernaculars into his symphonic writing. It swings and moves, for sure, but as a whole this four-movement work comes undone.

Leo Sowerby's "Prairie, A Poem for Orchestra After Carl Sandburg" is a sleepy, slowly building sprawl of a work with several well-timed dissonant yawps. "Too deserted," as a friend called it, or perhaps the setting of a still painting of a dusty Oklahoma landscape. If there was ever an exception to use live video accompaniment, this solitary amble from the former St. James Episcopal organist would've benefited from it.

Park Ridge native John Alden Carpenter's "Sea Drift" recalled Sowerby's tendency to slow boil a somber mood for all its worth, but improved it with a decidedly more fanciful and dreamlike edge. All the pomp and flair in William Schuman's "American Festival Overture" was cake for Kalmar's energetic direction and the orchestra's sprightly delivery. And despite the summery weather, at last, it wasn't a bad thing the festival moved indoors to the neighboring Harris Theater, whose bouncy acoustics served well Gershwin's tidy "Of Thee I Sing" and Samuel Barber's brilliantly colorful "Overture to the School for Scandal."

Bryant Manning, Chicago Sun Times