Classical

Review: O Say Does That Grant Park Orchestra Yet Play

The July 2, 2021, Grant Park Music Festival concert. Photos by Bob Benenson.

In past years, the Grant Park Music Festival’s Independence Day Salute came a few weeks into its outdoor season. While rich in nostalgia and patriotic sentiment, the concert had become a routine part of Chicago’s summer scene, and many repeat attendees might have a hard time remembering one year’s concert against the others.

This year’s salute—performed on Friday (July 2) and Saturday (July 3)—may last longer in memory, though. Not so much because of the program, which contained several pieces familiar to this holiday celebration. Not so much because of the Grant Park Orchestra’s performance, though it was very, very good. What will remain highest in memory is that this was the first concert in the Grant Park Music Festival’s 2021 season. It marked the company’s return after the lost COVID year of 2020, and for many in the audience it was their first live performance since the pandemic shut everything down in March of last year.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot opened the Grant Park Music Festival’s Independence Day Salute..

Although the festival was able to go forth because Chicago’s leaders fully re-opened the city on June 11, there were reminders that COVID-19 has not vanished as a threat. There were repeated references about the bravery of frontline workers from Mayor Lori Lightfoot (who addressed the audience at the start of the concert on Friday) and conductors Christopher Bell and Carlos Kalmar. The festival invited 200 of these workers to be guests at the concert. The orchestra members wore masks on stage, though the conductors took theirs down to speak to the audience and (of course) the winds and brass musicians had theirs down while performing.

There were few masks in evidence in the audience, though, and the mood was buoyant. It was not a packed house at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, as was so often the case for past July 4th concerts. But this was the first time that the Independence Day Salute was not on July 4th itself, and it is also the first time that the concert was presented on two nights rather than one.

Festival Chorus Director Christopher Bell

There was another unusual twist. Bell, the orchestra’s chorus director, took the podium, making his usual red, white and blue fashion statement that long ago became as much as part of the show as the music. But midway through he handed the baton off to Kalmar, the orchestra’s artistic director and principal conductor. There was even a guest appearance by Steve Smith, who recently stepped down as chairman of the Grant Park Music Festival’s Board of Directors and was invited to conduct the orchestra for Colonel Bogey March, written in 1914 and inserted into popular culture when it was used in the 1957 World War II movie Bridge on the River Kwai.

Bell opened the concert with John Williams’ Summon the Heroes, written in 1996 for the Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta and thus especially familiar to sports fans. Also under Bell’s baton was the traditional Armed Forces Salute, during which the anthems of the five military branches are played and veterans of each branch invited to stand and be saluted by the audience.

The program was notable for its representation of Black composers, who wrote three of the nine pieces performed. Bell conducted ragtime giant Scott Joplin’s Overture to Treemonishahis groundbreaking 1911 opera that was performed only once while he was alive (in 1915) and not again for 60 years—and Dances in the Canebrakes by Florence B. Price. An Arkansas native who moved to Chicago during the Great Migration of the 1920s, Price wrote the piece just before she died in 1953.

Principal Conductor Carlos Kalmar

Kalmar conducted a medley from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story then stepped aside for Smith’s turn at the podium. Kalmar then conducted Lyric for Strings, a 1946 piece by George Walker, who died at age 96 after opening new doors for Black composers and reigning as one of the great American composers of any race during the 20th century.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture followed. Kalmar spoke to the crowd about the peculiarity of how a piece by a Russian composer, commemorating his country’s successful defense against the invading army of Napoleon, became a standard at concerts commemorating the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Kalmar tied its popularity to Arthur Fiedler, who as conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra replaced the drums mimicking cannon fire with actual cannons starting in 1974. The Grant Park Orchestra, however, sticks to its drums to evoke those roaring cannons.

The concert ended with the audience on its feet waving tiny flags to John Philip Sousa’s march “Stars and Stripes Forever.” Were this ever omitted from the Independence Day Salute, the audience likely would refuse to leave until the orchestra came out and performed it as an encore.

David Gordon, the orchestra’s principal trumpet player, was the featured soloist on John Williams’ Summon the Heroes, which opened the concert.

The Grant Park Music Festival continues through August 21 with one program on each Wednesday and another performed each Friday and Saturday, all starting at 6:30pm. Next up this Wednesday is a program with four pieces: Short Piece for Orchestra by Black composer Julia Perry;  Suite from L’Arlésienne by Georges Bizet; Piano Concerto by Edvard Grieg; and Gioachino Rossini’s Overture to William Tell, better known in American popular culture as the theme music to The Lone Ranger radio and television series. Reserved seats are $25 and can be purchased by clicking here. Most seats and the entire Great Lawn are free; outside food and drink is welcome.

COVID safety rules: Festival staff will wear face coverings. Fully vaccinated individuals are no longer required to do so, but it is recommended that unvaccinated people wear masks unless actively eating or drinking. You should not attend the concert if you have been exposed to COVID-19, are awaiting results of a COVID test or have experienced symptoms of COVID in the past 48 hours.

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