The Sound of Summer

June 16, 2009

How Grant Park concerts have stirred the city's spirit for 75 years

“Can you see me? I’m over here,” screams a hand-waving man into his cell phone, standing in the aisle while pianist Stephen Hough is performing the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto during last week’s frigid seventy-fifth opening-night concert at the Grant Park Music Festival. “Shhh,” scold numerous blanket-toting concertgoers, while a far louder siren ratchets up in the distance.

“That was a cold opening night,” says Grant Park Orchestra principal conductor Carlos Kalmar, relaxing in his lakefront apartment on a Saturday morning in a burgundy T-shirt and gray sweat pants. “But we had one opening that was even colder: Dawn Upshaw was singing with us, and it was so cold, some of the musicians were having trouble moving their hands. Of course, the worst is rain, with wind coming from the south, because then we all get wet. It’s not so much for us: big deal, it’s the instruments that you run to protect at that point. And if lightning were to strike the structure, God forbid, the architects have grounded it so it probably won’t blow up, but because of the danger to the crowd, we will cancel or stop when lightning is in the area.”

For Kalmar, 51, who is now in his tenth year as principal conductor of the GPO, his summer months in Chicago represent what he calls “the most intense working period of my year, by far.” Music director of the Oregon Symphony during the year, Kalmar notes that the vast amount of repertoire covered during the Festival, combined with how quickly it all has to be prepared and how adventurous the programming is, makes the Grant Park Music Festival unique. “For the opening-night concert,” says Kalmar, “we try to make it a popular program, not only because we want to attract a big crowd to kick off the Festival, but also because the music will be repertoire that we all know and can work up easily, since it is our first time playing together in several months.” This year, the opening-night pieces were both Russian warhorses, the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto, with British pianist Stephen Hough as the soloist (”we try to engage a big name soloist for opening night”) and the Ravel orchestration of Mussorgsky’s piano suite, “Pictures at an Exhibition.” “We all saw each other for the first time on Tuesday morning, and by Wednesday night, we had already given our first concert,” says Kalmar.

Kalmar and the GPO were already using some of that early rehearsal time to work up a piece that none of them had ever played before last Friday night, Shostakovich’s “Song of the Forests” choral cantata, a propaganda piece written in praise of “the great gardener” Josef Stalin, and which, as both Kalmar and GPO chorus director Christopher Bell quickly note, that we are unlikely to hear again anytime soon due to its controversial subject matter. This weekend, the GPO orchestra and chorus will be unveiling the world premiere of Michael Torke’s “Plans,” a work inspired by the centennial of architect Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan for Chicago.

Tackling such new and rarely heard pieces within such a short period of time means that there needs to be a relationship of “considerable trust” between conductor and orchestra, something that only comes from a “shared vision” and a sustained period of working together. Kalmar, who was born in Uruguay to Austrian parents and had his musical training in Vienna and spent his early career conducting in Europe, admits that he had never heard of the GPO when former artistic director James W. Palermo invited him to guest conduct here back in 1998. “I expected that a city the size of Chicago would have a ‘good’ orchestra,” Kalmar recalls, “but they were so immediately responsive.” Palermo asked Kalmar back the following year to conduct the Mahler “Resurrection” Second Symphony. “I didn’t know it at the time,” says Kalmar, “because I didn’t even know they were looking for someone [to become principal conductor], but that became my ‘audition’ piece. Well, if you can’t get a reaction from a piece like that, you’re not much of a conductor!”

One of the first things that Palermo did when he hired Kalmar was to ask if he would be willing to have a concentration on American music at the Festival, a precedent that Palermo’s innovative predecessor Steven Ovitsky had established. “My culture was European,” says Kalmar, “so I had only conducted a handful of American pieces, but I saw this as a wonderful opportunity.” Initially, James Paul was brought in as principal guest conductor alongside Kalmar, and he remained for six seasons. “It worked well,” Kalmar assesses. “He was the more seasoned conductor, as it were, and he knew American music, so we gradually expanded that repertoire. Even now, there will always be a large percentage of the repertoire that we will do each year which I am doing for the first time.” Does Kalmar ever admit that upfront to the orchestra? “Never,” he says, with glazed eyes, “because I am fully prepared when I stand in front of them, even if it is a piece that we have never done. Yes, there is a certain depth, if you will, that can be achieved when you repeat a piece over the years, but you are still absolutely clear what your intentions are from the very beginning.” At a time when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has announced the downsizing of adventurous repertoire for next season due to the recession, Kalmar expresses that “a depression, recession, whatever it is, is the worst time to cut back on music, which seeks to be a respite from our problems and troubles. This very festival, in fact, was founded during the Great Depression, as an antidote to hard times.”

It was in 1931 that then Chicago Mayor Anton J. Cermak—who would be assassinated two years later by a bullet intended for FDR—conceived of a series of free Grant Park summer concerts to lift the spirits of Chicagoans during those trying times. Initially a one-season series, James C. Petrillo, the powerful head of the Chicago Federation of Musicians at the time, lobbied for the establishment of a permanent summer series of concerts as a means of finding secure work for his union members who, like the rest of country, were being laid off in droves. The arrival of the World’s Fair in 1933-1934 to commemorate Chicago’s “Century of Progress” included a band shell constructed at the south end of Grant Park for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to give daily concerts there during the fair. Petrillo seized upon this fact to convince the City that a permanent summer concert series in the structure should be established the summer after the fair, and Petrillo proceeded to raise the money and the crowds for the first season himself to demonstrate the viability of the concept. It was on July 1, 1935 that the first concert of the new series was presented in the park, a program that will be repeated to the letter on July 1 of this year, seventy-five seasons later. “There was debate about that,” admits Kalmar, “as our seventh-fifth ‘anniversary’ is technically next season, but [former artistic director] Jim Palermo felt that marking seventy-five seasons of the festival rather than seventy-five years, was the time to celebrate.”

The following year—and for every summer season since—the Chicago Park District picked up the tab, and such superstar performers of the era as violinist Jascha Heifetz, clarinetist Benny Goodman, conductor Andre Kostelanetz, soprano Lily Pons and baritone Lawrence Tibbett appeared at the park to crowds of typically thirty to forty thousand people, although for larger events, crowds would spike to hundreds of thousands, and millions more across the country would tune in when concerts were broadcast nationally on CBS or NBC radio. It wasn’t until 1943, at the height of World War II, that the Grant Park Orchestra was officially formed, and it has been the resident ensemble of the Grant Park Music Festival ever since.

The largest crowd of the festival was in 1958 when then general manager Edward Gordon—a pianist himself who would later go on to manage the Ravinia Festival—had the foresight to engage a largely unknown 23-year-old pianist from Fort Worth, Texas by the name of Van Cliburn. “When we engaged him,” Gordon told me in 1985, “he was known by pianists, but not by the public. Meanwhile, he went over to Moscow at the height of the Cold War and so wowed even the Russian judges of the first Tchaikovsky Competition that he took first prize. It was absolutely astonishing.” America welcomed home its new Cold War superhero with a ticker-tape parade in New York City and by buying up Van Cliburn records in the millions. An entire generation of pianists found inspiration in these recordings, and many a young Baby Boomer went to take piano lessons with the “lady on the corner” as a result of Van Cliburn’s influence. “I never even imagined that he would honor the date with us,” admitted Gordon, “which was less than a month after his headline-making return from Russia, and I kept expecting a call from his agent to cancel, as he was getting offers to die for. But happily, it never came, and Van showed up and gave one of the most astonishing performances of the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto—the same piece that had won him the competition, mind you—that I have ever heard.”

“It never even crossed my mind to cancel,” Cliburn told me in a 1993 interview. “That’s just not how my mother raised me. When you give your word, you give your word.”

But even the Van Cliburn crowd—which was estimated to be nearly half a million people—would pale next to Pope John Paul II’s visit to Chicago and a Grant Park open-air Mass in 1979 as a still new and vibrant pontiff, although crowds of half a million began to be the norm when the GPO began the tradition of an Independence Day Eve concert in the park climaxed by elaborate fireworks synchronized to live music in the late 1970s and which has continued as an unbroken tradition for more than thirty years.

Until now.

When asked how Kalmar feels about the Grant Park Orchestra having lost its prime place as the supplier of live music for the City of Chicago’s Independence Day Eve celebrations, Kalmar becomes visibly agitated. “I can’t talk about that,” he says, very matter-of-factly, while the festival’s marketing director cuts in with, “We’re starting a new tradition this year, with a Fourth of July daytime concert.”

“Well, that remains to be seen, isn’t it, as to whether this will be a ‘new’ tradition or not,” retorts Kalmar, realistically aware of the fact that more people came downtown on July Third for the grand finale fireworks display—that reliably would begin shooting off while the orchestra played Tchaikovsky’s “1812″ Overture complete with cannons, church bells and fireworks on cue—than for the patriotic-themed, American music orchestra concert that always preceded it. That concert could be heard by throngs up and down the lakefront from loudspeakers and radios. In fact, the GPO even released a recording called “Independence Day Eve at Grant Park” in 1998 with a cover showing the Orchestra performing while fireworks dart over a Chicago skyline. “I can’t talk about this,” says Kalmar, “because I was there and I know all of the back story, and I don’t want to start point pointing fingers at people. It is not my style.”

“We just don’t know,” admits chorus director Bell, who has conducted most of these massive concerts since arriving here in 2002, “whether there will be five people, twenty-five people, 350 people, we just don’t know how many people want to hear us during the day of a national holiday and without fireworks.” Bell is quoted in a festival press release issued last month that announced this “new tradition” that he was “not only tickled pink, but red, white and blue” at the prospect. What the release did not explicitly point out, however, was that the Grant Park Orchestra had been dropped from its Independence Day Eve role in performing live music leading up to and during the fireworks display, always its most high-profile performance of its season. And most media folks didn’t “read between the lines” of the release, as Bell puts it, that this long-established tradition was being eliminated. Witness the Chicago Tribune’s Metromix Web site, which still opens and closes its description of the festival as follows: “Throughout the summer the Grant Park Music Festival sponsors free evening concerts with the Chicago skyline as a stunning backdrop… An Independence Day-eve concert coordinated with a fireworks display is a tradition on July 3.”

“After the Pritzker [Pavilion] first opened,” Bell recalls, “it was crushing to learn after getting this wonderful state-of-the-art home that we would be doing our most popular concert, the July Third concert, back in the old bandshell [a "temporary" structure erected in 1978 that was the GPO's home for twenty-five years]. Can you imagine how wonderful it would have been to have those concerts in the Pritzker? To have the sound be as grand as the fireworks? But there were issues of crowd control cited, and keeping the celebration close to the lakefront for better views. We had imagined this concert being televised and becoming an even bigger deal than it had been. We all got a sense of how beautiful the city can look on television the night of the Obama election. But it was not to be. There has been an evolution at the festival; on the one hand, everyone admits that the festival itself is better than ever artistically, and here we are in this gorgeous new pavilion—a real work of art—with the best state-of-the-art sound system available, the last municipally funded classical music festival in the nation. On the other hand, there is more and more the sense that the ‘Grant Park’ Orchestra is an afterthought as to what actually goes on in the park. The Blues Festival, the Gospel Festival, Lollapollooza and such, have gradually been encroaching more and more on our concerts. Sure, you could still have one in any case, but with the intense amplification used for Lollapalooza, who is going to hear us?” Little by little, it appears, the Orchestra’s schedule took a backseat to other City of Chicago events until the Independence Day Eve concert became the last bargaining chip. With the departure of fourteen-year artistic director James Palermo last March to take a job with the Colorado Orchestra, the move was made to remove the Orchestra’s participation from that event altogether, offering it a token daytime concert the following day as a replacement.

Both Kalmar and Bell agree, however, that political and pyrotechnical fireworks aside, the Festival has come a long, long way, not just over seventy-five seasons, but particularly since the 2004 opening of the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. “Where else do you have a festival like this that is municipally funded and contained within a beautiful park that is accessible to everyone downtown?” asks Kalmar, who describes the difference between performing at the 1978 “temporary” Petrillo Music Shell and the Frank Gehry-designed sixty-plus million-dollar Pritzker Pavilion as “the difference between driving a fifteen-year-old Ford that still runs and can still get you from point A to B, to driving a Ferrari. I hope that everyone realizes what a special, special thing this is here, and that the Festival goes on for another seventy-five seasons, at least.”

Dennis Polkow,