Carlos Kalmar Is On A Mission

June 18, 2010

Grant Park remains committed to its core missions, which include presenting American works and neglected repertoire, and showcasing its accomplished professional chorus.

This summer marks the 76th season of the Grant Park Music Festival, its 10th under the musical leadership of principal conductor Carlos Kalmar, its sixth full summer at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park and its first concert series since Elizabeth Hurley took over as executive director.

No other U.S. city has a free, municipally funded, top-level, outdoor classical music festival. The Uruguayan-Austrian Kalmar, who also heads the Oregon Symphony Orchestra and soon will take over Spain's Radio and Television Orchestra, has been both a creative dynamo and a true orchestra builder.

The Frank Gehry-designed pavilion, which opened in 2004 in what has become the most popular corner of Chicago, has proved a magnet for audiences in the tens of thousands. At a time of economic constraint, Hurley, a veteran top administrator and fund-raiser of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and New York's Metropolitan Opera, is just the steady and determined hand the organization needs.

Hurley's visionary predecessor, James W. Palermo, now the president of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, left an important legacy in Kalmar, the brilliant chorus director Christopher Bell (starting his ninth season here), and the varied and original programming that Kalmar now continues.

While Highland Park's Ravinia Festival seems to think of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as an afterthought and classical music as just part of its "mix," Grant Park remains committed to its core missions, which include presenting American works and neglected repertoire, and showcasing its accomplished professional chorus.

There's no reason that such things can't be done in a popular fashion, as Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra showed Wednesday night at the Pritzker Pavilion before whatever the free-admission equivalent to a sold-out crowd -- seats and lawn -- is called. After a spirited "Star-Spangled Banner," with a healthy presence of enthusiastic singers in the audience, the Italian-flavored program began with Berlioz's "Roman Carnival" Overture. Kalmar made structure and ingredients clear without sacrificing the increasingly lively Neapolitan dance rhythms. English horn Judith Kulb received a deserved ovation.

I wish I could have been more excited by Finnish violinist Elina Vahala making her Chicago debut in Vivaldi's much-loved "The Four Seasons." Clearly both focused and energetic, she brought little new to a work so often heard that it requires a more personal touch or a very high level of virtuosity to bring it off. Kalmar and the orchestra seemed dutifully to follow her manner -- neither modern nor period, German, Russian or Italian. The always-reliable David Schrader was the harpsichordist.

Life and color were restored in Ottorino Respighi's 1928 "Feste Romane," the sometimes gaudy also-ran to "The Fountains of Rome" and "The Pines" of same in the composer's Roman trilogy. From trumpets to extra percussion, every section matched the Technicolor requirements of the score.

Friday and Saturday hold heavier work for the GPO and introduce the chorus for the season with Haydn's "Te Deum," Hindemith's "Nobilissima visione" and Beethoven's rarely heard Mass in C Major.

Andrew Patner, Chicago Sun-Times