Grant Park Music Festival readies a silver salute to its symphony chorus

February 22, 2012

by John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune

The Grant Park Music Festival has long prided itself in giving its patrons programming of the sort more commercially-minded summerfests such as Ravinia can’t and won’t touch, realized at a high artistic level in one of the nation’s most spectacular urban settings.

The dynamic, stainless-steel sails of architect Frank Gehry’s state-of-the-art Jay Pritzker Pavilion speed listeners on journeys of discovery, courtesy of the Grant Park Orchestra and Grant Park Chorus. The country’s only remaining free, municipally sponsored, outdoor summer classical music festival has attracted hundreds of thousands of adventure-minded listeners since Millennium Park opened in 2004.

Thousands more will do so during the 78th Grant Park Music Festival season, a 10-week array of classical and lighter fare, running June 13 to Aug. 18 at the park. There will be 20 programs of symphonic, choral and Broadway works, the bulk of them presided over by principal conductor and artistic director Carlos Kalmar, and chorus director Christopher Bell.

This summer will mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Grant Park Chorus, which Bell has built into one of the city’s finest professional choruses. To celebrate the milestone, Kalmar will lead the orchestra and chorus in the world premieres of Grant Park-commissioned works by American composers Michael Gandolfi and Sebastian Currier.

What’s more, the Chicago-based Cedille label will release a recording of American a cappella choral works featuring Bell and his chorus. June will bring a golden anniversary program featuring Stravinsky’s "Les Noces" and the year’s most overplayed choral blockbuster, “Carmina Burana.” (Carl Orff’s scenic cantata will receive yet another free performance at the park three months later, this one with Riccardo Muti leading his Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, the same forces that performed it at Symphony Center this past January.)

This will be the first Grant Park season under the executive directorship of Paul Winberg, the former executive director of the Eugene (Ore.) Symphony, who joined the leadership team in September following a three-year transition period.

Winberg already has settled into what he believes is a productive working relationship with Kalmar, Bell and the board and hopes to broaden the festival’s scope, particularly in terms of community outreach and shared services with other local arts institutions.

“What Carlos brings to the table in terms of artistic leadership and innovation makes my job that much easier,” he says. “What this board, staff, the musicians, Carlos and Christopher have done, particularly in recent, has been truly remarkable. I am excited to have stepped into a really well-functioning organization.”

“The orchestra and chorus used to be good groups – now they are excellent groups,” says Kalmar, an Austrian conductor who also serves as music director of the Portland-based Oregon Symphony. “Neither Christopher nor I is just sitting back, feeling complacent. We are constantly thinking about what the next step will be, what work we can do better and what kinds of repertory we can explore next.”

Kalmar’s 11 programs this summer will range from symphonic standards by Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms to such unusual fare as Haydn’s “The Seasons,” Benjamin Britten’s Piano Concerto, Astor Piazzolla’s “Four Seasons of Buenos Aires,” John Alden Carpenter’s “Adventures in a Perambulator” and, as season finale, Antonin Dvorak’s big, rarely performed cantata, “The Spectre’s Bride.”

In his 11th season as chorus director, Bell will take charge of a choral program featuring Rossini’s “Stabat Mater” and English composer Kenneth Leighton’s “Hymn to Matter.” He also will conduct the annual Independence Day Celebration on July 4.

Making their festival debuts will be conductors James Gaffigan, Koen Kessels, Rossen Milanov and Jun Markl; pianist Steven Osborne; violinist Mikhail Simonyan; cellist Tanja Tetzlaff; and soprano Aleksandra Kurzak. Returning will be conductors George Fenton and Kevin Stites; pianist Pascal Roge; violinists Christian Tetzlaff and Chee-Yun; and cellist Alban Gerhardt.

The festival also will continue its educational outreach programs for children ages 6-12, presented in collaboration with the Chicago Park District.

Concerts will take place Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evenings. WFMT (98.7 FM) will continue to broadcast selected concerts live from the Pritzker Pavilion. For information about festival memberships and further information about the season, call 312-742-7647, or visit

“There is so much great energy, so much going on here that’s positive, that what may ultimately happen as we grow the presence of the festival and deepen the experience for our audience, will be very easy (to realize), because our organization is ready for it,” says Winberg.