Chorus Takes Centerstage in 2010 Grant Park Lineup

June 10, 2010

Wynee Delacoma of The Chicago Sun-Times discusses the Festival's ambitious choral repertoire for the 2010 season.

Organizers of this summer’s Grant Park Music Festival, whose season of 31 free concerts opens Wednesday at Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion, could have been tempted to operate on automatic pilot.

The worldwide economic downturn continues, and belts have been tightened at the Chicago Park District and the Department of Cultural Affairs, which account for approximately half of the festival’s $4 million-plus budget. The festival was without an administrative director for much of 2009. James W. Palermo, the artistic and general director who had steered the festival with great flair since 1995, left for the Colorado Symphony Orchestra in March 2009. Elizabeth Hurley, whose resume includes a stint as development director at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, didn’t arrive as executive director until December.

And last year, the festival’s 75th anniversary, was one long celebration. In addition to ambitious concerts, the festival produced a comprehensive book about its own history. A polished compendium of pictures and prose, it chronicled the festival’s rise from a make-work endeavor for musicians reeling from the Depression and a burgeoning record industry that threatened their paying gigs in clubs and restaurants.

One look at this season’s schedule, however, makes it clear that the festival has been firing on all cylinders despite tight budgets, shifts in the executive ranks and the inevitable post-anniversary return to business as usual.

The Grant Park Chorus, honed to a superlative peak in recent years by director Christopher Bell, will have an unusually high profile this summer.

Early in the season (June 18-19), it will perform Beethoven’s C Major Mass, Haydn’s “Te Deum” and Hindemith’s “Nobilissima Visione’’ with the Grant Park Orchestra under the baton of Carlos Kalmar, the festival’s principal conductor. The chorus will give an all-French a cappella program in the Harris Theater July 6 and 8 and appear with vocal soloists and the orchestra July 23-24 in Michael Tippett’s oratorio, “A Child of Our Time,’’ conducted by Bell. Dvorak’s Requiem is scheduled for Aug. 13-14, and the 82-voice chorus will help close the festival Aug. 20-21 when Kalmar conducts Mahler’s “Resurrection’’ Symphony.

In addition to these ambitious choral showcases, the season includes some notable guest conductors and soloists, among them violinist Christian Tetzlaff (Aug. 4) and conductors Xian Zhang (July 9-10) and Hans Graf (July 14). The orchestra will be involved in innovative programs ranging from a joint concert with the genre-busting Pink Martini ensemble from Portland, Ore. (June 23) to a collaboration with the Goodman Theatre July 7. That program, which includes spoken word and music, is built around “Memory of Fire” by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano. It is part of Goodman’s 2010 Latino Theatre Festival.

Hurley, who came to the festival after three years as development director at the Metropolitan Opera, credits Kalmar for this season’s breadth. The festival’s principal conductor since 2000, he is also music director of the Oregon Symphony.

“This is really Carlos through and through,’’ Hurley said of this summer’s lineup. “What the season shows is incredible diversity and depth in the repertoire.”

Hurley has been thinking about long-range planning since she arrived in Chicago, and she hopes at some point the festival will be able to commission new works. She wants to expand the number of collaborations with organizations like the Goodman Theatre. She also would like to present more American music and to showcase conductors as they emerge on the national and international scene.

“One of the things Carlos and I are talking about for next year is who are the talented young conductors?” she said. “How can we bring them here and offer them the bully pulpit of the Pritzker Pavilion? Because it is an incredible audience and incredible opportunity for an artist.’’

Since moving into the Frank Gehry-designed pavilion in 2004, the Grant Park Orchestra regularly attracts up to 10,000 listeners per concert. The orchestra has always had a large core of loyal fans, but that base has grown exponentially in recent years. This season the orchestra raised $830,000 through its membership program.

“The move [to the Pritzker] was transformative,’’ said Hurley. “Our team does a pretty good job of collecting data about our audience. Our surveys show that on any given night, 20 to 30 percent of the people in the audience have never been to an orchestra concert before. I really feel that what we have to offer is a new audience for all the performing arts.”

Wynne Delacoma, Chicago Sun-Times