Nine and a Half Weeks of Free Classical Music

June 15, 2010

Alexander Hough of The Chicagoist discusses the Festival's 2010 opening night and  traditions that go along with enjoying the free outdoor classical music series in Millennium Park.

The Grant Park Music Festival kicks off its 76th season tomorrow night with a one-night-only program featuring works by Hector Berlioz, Antonio Vivaldi, and Ottorino Respighi, followed this weekend by concerts of religious music by Joseph Haydn, Paul Hindemith, and Ludwig van Beethoven.

For the uninitiated, the GPMF puts on about three free concerts per week in Millennium Park (the festival moved from Grant Park to the sonically and visually superior Jay Pritzker Pavilion in 2004). In addition to the perfect admission price, the musicians forming this summer-only ensemble are great, too. The bulk of the members play with the Lyric Opera during the regular season, with other GPMFers coming to Chicago from various corners of the country, including music director Carlos Kalmar, who leads the Oregon Symphony from September through May. On top of all that, the mid-show drinking and eating that's generally frowned upon by conventional orchestras is heartily encouraged in Millennium Park. Now you can have your music and drink, too, as the saying doesn't really go.

Tomorrow night's show features Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons," the original musical painting of nature. While this set of four violin concertos is undoubtedly some of the most famous music ever written, the piece we're looking forward to most is Respighi's "Roman Festivals." Written in 1928, the music contains vivid descriptions like those found in "The Four Seasons" (both pieces include composer-written notes describing the scenes, although Vivaldi's were sonnets rather than prose); although, with its Romantic gestures, "Roman Festivals" feels more like a Strauss tone poem. Combine that with the bombast and excess that recalls Stravinsky's early music - Respighi kicks more ass in the five minute-long first movement than most composers do in a lifetime - and you get a thrilling 25 minutes. Berlioz's "Roman Carvinal" Overture starts the show.

If you haven't made it to the CSO's Beethoven Festival, or if you have and you just can't get enough Beethoven, Friday and Saturday nights' performances of Beethoven's Mass with the Grant Park Chorus should hit the spot. The Chorus will also perform Haydn's all-vocal "Te Deum," and the GPO will play Hindemith's "Nobilissima visione," music from the composer's 1938 ballet about Giotto's frescoes that depict the life of Saint Francis of Assisi.

Alexander Hough, Chicagoist