From Patriotism to Protest: Grant Park Festival’s All-American Weekend

The Grant Park Music Festival continued its tradition of touring the American songbook for thousands attending its annual July 4th concert at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. It kicked off a weekend of American themes, with a program that stretched from the piano virtuosity of George Gershwin’s Concerto in F to a modern-day oratorio, titled emergency shelter intake form, that addressed the distress and indignities of homelessness.

Dandy, As Usual

First, fashion.

Christopher Bell, the choral director of the Grant Park Music Festival, conducts the annual July 4th concerts, and he is a source of entertainment himself with the creative outfits he sports. For 2019, he was colorful, if a little less glittery than at some past concerts, wearing a white jacket with big blue stars for the first part, and an orange jacket with a black web design that recalled Spiderman after the intermission.

After a warm greeting from Lori Lightfoot, Chicago’s new mayor, and a rendition of the National Anthem complete with color guard, the Grant Park Orchestra launched into an eclectic exploration of Americana. Aaron Copland’s elevating Fanfare for the Common Man segued into Leroy Anderson’s The Typewriter, which featured percussionist Joel Cohen “playing” a manual typewriter.

Mary Stolper was the next in a parade of Grant Park soloists with the American Flute Salute, a medley of patriotic songs with a snippet of Jethro Tull’s Aqualung thrown in for giggles. Anderson’s Bugler’s Holiday gave the brass section a chance to stand, with the players wearing oversized Uncle Sam hats. Baritone John Orduña captivated the audience with the African-American spiritual Deep River and God Bless America, then turned upbeat with a medley of George M. Cohan tunes that included an audience sing-along to Yankee Doodle Dandy and Grand Old Flag.

The second part of the program opened with a ragtime medley. A musical travelogue followed, with Ferde Grofé’s On The Trail from the Grand Canyon Suite, the folk song Shenandoah, and a medley of songs identified with places across the nation (San Francisco, Deep in the Heart of Texas, Meet Me in St. Louis, Chicago, The Tennessee Waltz, Old Kentucky Home, Georgia On My Mind, Carolina in the Morning, New York New York). Videos and photos of these locations were displayed on the giant HD screen displayed over the orchestra.

The Armed Forces Salute welcomed veterans to stand while the anthem of their military branch was played. The concert closed with a flourish with America the BeautifulTchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (which has somehow become a July 4th standard), and John Philip Sousa’s The Stars and Stripes Forever that had the crowd on its feet, clapping along.

Gershwin, and All That Jazz

George Gershwin is one of American music’s great and tragic figures. Born in 1898, he had created classics — from Tin Pan Alley popular songs to the opera Porgy and Bess — when his life was cut short by brain cancer on July 11, 1937. And Gershwin’s most familiar, and likely most significant, contribution was his fusion of the uniquely American art form of jazz into classical composition.

The festival’s July 5 and July 6 concerts featured Concerto in F (1925), with veteran Gershwin interpreter Jeffrey Kahane playing furiously on the Steinway. The concerto is not as familiar or beloved as Gershwin’s breakthrough Rhapsody in Blue (1924), although the later piece was featured in the 1951 movie, An American in Paris.

Both pieces project a propulsive energy—lots of brass and percussion to go with the rapid-fire piano—meant to reflect the era’s sense of unlimited possibility (which unfortunately crashed into the Great Depression). While these Roaring Twenties concert pieces are most associated with Gershwin’s hometown of New York City, a short walk from Millennium Park provides a feel for that era’s sky-high ambitions. Many of Chicago’s cherished architectural landmarks, including the Wrigley Building, Tribune Tower and the Chicago Board of Trade, date to the 1920s.

Lending Voice to the Homeless

After all the upbeat and familiar sounds that the orchestra had produced, conductor/artistic director Carlos Kalmar took a risk by presenting a new, highly unusual and intensely political piece. emergency shelter intake form (2018) was commissioned by Kalmar in his year-round role as music director for the Oregon Symphony and composed by Gabriel Kahane (son of Jeffrey Kahane, the pianist for the performance of the Gershwin piece).

An exploration of the scourge of homelessness, the libretto—performed by mezzo-soprano soloist Alicia Hall Moran with support of a Greek chorus of sorts made up of Gabriel Kahane, Holland Andrews and Holcombe Waller—is built around a detailed and humiliating questionnaire to be completed by desperate people seeking overnight shelter. Conforming to the traditional oratorio form were passages on the personal circumstances that leave people without a roof over their head, the redlining that consigned urban communities to poverty, and the nightmare of eviction.

Yet the piece took a couple of unusual turns with pop-sounding vocals on serious issues: one, performed by Waller, on gentrification and the “not in my backyard” mindset, and the other, performed by Kahane, a lengthy description of the origins of the subprime mortgage loan crisis that precipitated the deep recession a decade ago and produced foreclosures that greatly exacerbated homelessness. These segments prompted the thought that the piece may have more popular potential as a stage musical than in a concert setting.

Though often dire, the piece ended with a note of hopefulness: not in the libretto—the final words are, “You will need to be gone by 6:30am”—but in the participants. The ensemble was joined for the last movement by the community chorus from Harmony, Hope & Healing, a Chicago nonprofit that uses music to help currently or recently homeless individuals to rebuild their lives.

Given the weightiness of the subject matter, emergency shelter intake form is not going to be for everyone, and its approach will strike some as overly polemical. But art is often provocative, and if the piece prompts greater awareness of an issue that is often swept under the rug, then it will have accomplished its purpose.

All photos by Bob Benenson.

Bob Benenson
Bob Benenson

Bob Benenson is publisher/writer/photographer of Local Food Forum, a new newsletter that covers the broad sweep of the Chicago region’s food community. He is a longtime advocate for a better, healthier, more sustainable food system and is an avid home cook who gets most of his delicious ingredients from local farmers.