Invigorating Grant Park opener follows a bad call on weather

June 17, 2013

By Andrew Patner, Chicago Sun-Times

The word Lollapalooza has re-entered the American vocabulary to mean an annual, national multi-day summer rock and pop festival along Chicago’s downtown lakefront.

Perhaps Lollapalooza Syndrome can join the dictionary, too.

Last August, city officials controversially stopped the musicfest midday and evacuated some 100,000 paid attendees from Grant Park when word of storms came through. Wednesday evening, with an hour to go before the downbeat and no reason beyond semi-hysterical weather forecasts, the City of Chicago pulled the plug on the opening night of the much more refined Grant Park Music Festival, by canceling all outdoor activities in MillenniumPark.

This was the first time in its 79 seasons that the popular free classical concert series lost its opening concert. No storm came to downtown, and an audience prepared for rain-or-shine performance, as well as a local radio and international web broadcast audience, lost out. Young violin soloist Stefan Jackiw was to make an anticipated debut. Instead he came to town for nothing.

But the festival is made of troupers, and Friday night’s first weekend concert became the de facto season opener, complete with rescheduled “Star-Spangled Banner.” Fortunately, too, artistic director and principal conductor Carlos Kalmar had scheduled invigorating music for the program which was repeated, as scheduled, on Saturday evening. Friday, even with a cool breeze, drew attendance of 9,000.

Under Kalmar’s podium leadership for 13 years, the Grant Park Orchestra has gone from strength to strength, and the instincts that led previous general and artistic director James W. Palermo to hire the Uruguayan-Austrian Kalmar and to steer him towards American music — a genre he’d barely even heard before — have proved wholly on target. Kalmar may be the best orchestral conductor of American mid-20th century repertoire there is, and his subsequent position as music director of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra has also borne this out.

Samuel Barber’s suite from his 1946 Martha Graham “Medea” ballet, “Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance,” has rarely sounded so alive and vital — and the debts that Leonard Bernstein owed to the 13-minute work for his own “West Side Story” and other works rarely so clear. Kalmar just gets the idiom and both what is new and what is based in the European tradition. The Americana side is of course even more prominent in Aaron Copland’s earlier ballet for Graham, the 1938 “Billy the Kid,” and Kalmar made every one of Copland’s own suite’s 21 minutes sound as if “Git Along, Little Dogies” had been playing in his crib in Montevideo. A beautiful and even moving performance with each of its six sections delineated but all sounding as a whole illustration of our Western territory heritage.

What Kalmar has done with the orchestra, Christopher Bell, now in his 12th season here, has done for the Grant Park Chorus. Sergei Prokofiev’s “Alexander Nevsky” Cantata, yet another suite, in this case drawn from the Soviet composer’s score for Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 film, is one of the ultimate showcases for orchestral chorus. Whether in its faux-historic national Russian hymns or in a plaintive universal song of mourning (albeit with a patriotic text), Bell and his singers brought everything out from the storing score and Russian texts. Kalmar and the orchestra were right there with him in the 36-minute narrative, especially in the famous illustrative “Battle on the Ice.” The Bulgarian-Canadian mezzo Emilia Boteva was assured, attractive and plaintive in the “Field of the Dead” solo.

The packed 10-week season continues Wednesday, when Pink Martini joins Kalmar and the orchestra, and next weekend, when Kalmar and soloists play music from China and France. Let’s hope for good weather and, even if that proves imperfect, letting the show go on.