Grant Park Promises A Summer Rich In Musical Adventure

June 09, 2010

In terms of musical depth and variety, the 2010 Grant Park season is the strongest I've encountered in more than 30 years of attending concerts at the nation's only remaining free, municipally sponsored, outdoor summer classical music festival.

While its fancy-priced competitor on the North Shore transforms itself ever more cynically into what appears to be a pop cafeteria offering classical music as a side dish, the Grant Park Music Festival is staying on mission.

In terms of musical depth and variety, the 2010 Grant Park season, which opens Wednesday and runs to Aug. 21 in Millennium Park, is the strongest I've encountered in more than 30 years of attending concerts at the nation's only remaining free, municipally sponsored, outdoor summer classical music festival.

For certain this great municipal playground is the place to catch symphonic, choral and world music performed at a high level. No less an attraction than the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus is the Frank Gehry-designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion, one of the finest outdoor venues in the world, with a superior sound system that makes what you hear as inviting as what you see.

Both Grant Park and Ravinia welcome the picnic-hamper brigades, but it's been my impression over the years that people come to Grant Park more for the music than for schmoozing on the lawn.

Over the last decade, that music has been in the estimable hands of Carlos Kalmar, the orchestra's Uruguayan-born Austrian principal conductor. Together with Christopher Bell, the festival's inspiring chorus director, Kalmar has raised Grant Park's artistic profile higher than it's perhaps ever been, while broadening the repertory to include works audiences won't hear anywhere else.

Kalmar feels free to push the musical envelope because Grant Park does not have to answer to the box office. Ravinia does, and its classical lineup this year is woefully timid and unimaginative by comparison.

Kalmar also has made Grant Park the place to spot talented if relatively unknown conductors and soloists making Chicago debuts before the rest of the world takes notice. The young Finnish violinist Elina Vahala, playing Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" at the season opener on Wednesday, is one of several discoveries that await visitors this summer.

"Between the time I came on board in 2000 and where we are now, it's a completely different ballgame," Kalmar observes. "We now have a terrific orchestra and one of the best choruses in the entire country. Essentially we prepare twice as much music as the average orchestra does each week of the winter season, and mostly difficult or unfamiliar works at that. Without musicians of this quality, none of that would be possible."

The programming for the 76th Grant Park season is essentially Kalmar's handiwork. He and James W. Palermo shared in the artistic planning when the latter served as general director. Palermo's departure last year, when he was succeeded by Elizabeth Hurley, altered that dynamic.

In the new chain of command, Hurley (who brings to the executive director's post an impressive track record as a former development director at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera) focuses on administration and fund-raising while Kalmar handles artistic and musical duties.

"Elizabeth and I discuss programming in a different way than I did with Jim Palermo," says Kalmar. "She and I make a very good team and are working very well together."

According to Hurley, the Grant Park Orchestral Association has reached its revenue goal of $830,000 and has stepped up various other revenue-producing plans. "It's a matter of building a really strong base of individual support for the festival," she says.

A glance at the season schedule discloses a brace of tempting programs and interesting performers that support Kalmar's slightly biased claim that Grant Park 2010 is "a festival to die for."

The big choral masterpieces have long been a Kalmar signature, and this summer's bounty will include Beethoven's seldom-heard Mass in C major (June 18-19), Michael Tippett's deeply moving oratorio "A Child of Our Time" (July 23-24), Dvorak's richly expressive Requiem (Aug. 13-14) and Mahler's rousing "Resurrection" Symphony (Aug. 20-21).

I also look forward to such offbeat attractions as the Portland-based lounge sensation Pink Martini (June 23) and Toumani Diabate, a virtuoso of the kora, a West African harp-lute (Aug. 11).

Once again Grant Park will offer programs reflecting the great cultural melting pot that is Chicago. Conductor Krzysztof Urbanski and pianist Krzysztof Jablonski will team up for an all-Polish program presented in memory of the late Polish president Lech Kaczynski (June 30). And another newcomer, Enrique Barrios, will conduct 20th century Mexican symphonic music as part of the city's " Mexico 2010" celebration (July 31).

There is plenty more at the web site, grantparkmusicfestival.com, or call 312-742-7638, to check out the full array.

John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune