Preview: Grant Park Music Festival Opens on Wednesday

Grant Park Festival takes place in a splendid setting. Photo by Christopher Neseman.

The Grant Park Festival  begins its 19th season with Artistic Director Carlos Kalmar at the helm this Wednesday with a program that includes the Grant Park Chorus and baritone Dashon Burton. Wednesday’s program, which will be repeated on Saturday, June 16, is a fairly typical amalgam of music by familiar classical composers and modern/contemporary artists. The first half starts with a fairly new orchestral work by Sean Sheppard, Magiya, and ends with one of Franz Josef Haydn’s best symphonies, No. 99 in E-flat major. The second half features a Belshazzar’s Feast, a huge work for orchestra, chorus, and baritone by modern composer William Walton.

For over 80 years the Grant Park Music Festival and its deservedly acclaimed orchestra and chorus, directed by Christopher Bell, has offered summertime concerts of music by classical, modern, and contemporary composers. The festival used to take place in Grant Park, but the concerts have moved to Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion. Of course, it is totally cliché to say that Frank Gehry’s amphitheater, backed by Chicago’s skyline, forms a stunning setting, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

Carlos Kalmar Displays a vivid conducting style. Photo by Patrick Pyszka.

The music making is usually great, notwithstanding inevitable distractions from helicopters, sirens, and conversations among audience members. This all contributes to a festive atmosphere, with many listeners bringing picnic baskets, complete with linens, flatware, and crystal. Applause often erupts before a piece actually ends, thereby making the final notes inaudible.

This year’s program includes wonderful, yet less frequently performed works. The second concert of the series, on June 15, includes Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s best yet rarely performed Violin Concerto, no. 4 in D-major, with William Hagen taking up the fiddle. The program also includes 20th Century composer Edward Elgar’s marvelous Enigma Variations and overtures by 19th Century composer Carl Maria von Weber and 18th Century composer Christoph Gluck.

As is typical, the programs feature something for everybody. Piano aficionados are in for some fireworks, starting with Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in d-minor, the so called “Rach 3” made famous in the Oscar winning film Shine. Natasha Paremski will perform it in a program that also includes Walter Piston’s Symphony no. 6 on June 23. Kirill Gerstein will be performing Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in a program that also includes Jan Sibelius’ Symphony no. 2 and Douglas Lilburn’s Aotearoa Overture on July 25. Finally, George Li will be performing Frederic Chopin’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in e-minor on August 8. In addition to John Vincent’s Symphony in D-major, that concert includes Chopin’s music for piano solo.

Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus fill the stage with wonderful sounds. Photo by Walter Mitchell.

After the opening week, there will be several other opportunities to enjoy vocal music, including the very next week. On June 20 and 22, the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus will perform Johannes Brahms’ Gesang der Parzen, Olivier Messiaen’s O Sacrum Convivium, Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, and a world premiere by Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds. On July 13 and 14, the chorus and orchestra, conducted by Kevin Stites, will perform songs from Lerner and Lowe musicals. Vocalists Sierra Boggess, Ryan Silverman, and Ben Crawford will perform numbers from My Fair Lady, Camelot, Brigadoon, and others.

Four concerts will be devoted to the cello. Johannes Moser will be performing Antonin Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in b-minor in a program that includes Sinfonietta by fellow Czech composer and Leoš Janáček, and Summer Evening by Hungarian composer Kodály Zoltán on June 29 and 30. Pablo Fernandez will be performing Sergei Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante in a concert that includes other modern works, The Unanswered Question by Charles Ives, and Symphony no. 4 by Ralph Vaughan Williams on August 10 and 11.

The festival will close on August 17 and 18 with the orchestra and chorus, joined by members of the Anima – Glen Ellyn’s Children Chorus, performing Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. Soloists for this concert are soprano Claire de Sevigne, counter tenor Michael Maniaci, and baritone John Brancy. Dvořák’s Water Goblin is also on the program.

The Grant Park Music Festival has performances every Wednesday and Friday, at 6:30 pm, and Saturday on 7:30 pm. Reserved seating close to the stage can be purchased, but free seating is available towards the back of the pavilion and on the grass. In the days leading up to each concert, rehearsals are also open to the public. Check out the complete program at Grant Park Festival.


Louis Harris
Louis Harris

A lover of music his whole life, Louis Harris has written extensively from the early days of punk and alternative rock. More recently he has focused on classical music, especially chamber ensembles. He has reviewed concerts, festivals, and recordings and has interviewed composers and performers. He has paid special attention to Chicago’s rich and robust contemporary art music scene. He occasionally writes poetry and has a published novel to his credit, 32 Variations on a Theme by Basil II in the Key of Washington, DC. He now lives on the north side of Chicago, which he considers to be the greatest city in the country, if not the world. Member of the Music Critics Association of North America.