Classical

Essay: Wrapping Up a Real Live Grant Park Festival Summer

Carlos Kalmar, artistic director and principal conductor of the Grant Park Orchestra, takes an opening bow at the penultimate concert of the Grant Park Festival’s 2021 outdoor season. Photo by Bob Benenson.

It would be inappropriate to allow the summer to end without acknowledging how the Grant Park Music Festival has, once again, added to the enjoyment of our outdoor season.  

The Grant Park Orchestra’s concerts at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park were summer essentials for us long before 2019, when I stepped out of the audience to write about them for Third Coast Review. Like thousands of others, I felt the void when the COVID crisis caused the 2020 season to be canceled. It was glorious to be back this year. 

Here are a few takeaways from the 2021 season. 

1) I Sucked at Childhood: This was accented during the season’s final week, with concerts on August 18, 20 and 21. It was filled with works by some of classical music’s greatest prodigies: Sinfonia in D Major, which Felix Mendelssohn wrote in 1822, when he was 13 years old; Mass No. 2 in G Major, D.167 by Franz Schubert, who wrote it in 1815 when he was 18; and Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major, K. 216, which Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote in 1775 at the ripe old age of 19 (by which point he had already written more than 30 symphonies). 

These compositions are beautiful but also a bit humbling. I remember enough (maybe too much) about my adolescence, and I know that it did not involve writing symphonic music, with or without two centuries-plus of staying power. 

2) Nature Reigns… and Rains: Outdoor events are always a gamble, especially with the unpredictabilities wrought by global climate change. Fortunately, the seemingly unending soup of heat and humidity was as bad as it got on concert nights… except for one sudden and dramatically timed downpour. The orchestra was performing Gioachino Rossini’s William Tell Overture—better known to generations as the theme song of The Lone Ranger—on July 7. And just as the climax began, the skies opened up, sending listeners galloping for cover.  

3) Stars and Stripes… Forever, Please: The Grant Park Festival usually launches during the second week in June. But the city didn’t officially re-open to public gatherings until just about that time, delaying the festival’s kickoff until the weekend of July 4. Nonetheless, it was a grand old sendoff, spread over two nights (July 2 and 3) for the first time. The star-spangled review was replete with Choral Director Christopher Bell’s latest holiday-themed outfit, the return to the podium of longtime Artistic Director Carlos Kalmar, the anthemic salute to each branch of the military (during which veterans are invited to stand), and of course John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s The 1812 Overture. 

I’m reasonably certain that this little festival of Americana (with a Russian composer’s thunder) is a permanent fixture of the Grant Park Festival. Good thing, because if it ever went away, some of us would miss it more than the fireworks. 

4) It’s Sibelius, Stupid: The festival included two compositions by famed Finnish composer Jean Sibelius: his Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major (July 16 and 17) and his Violin Concerto in d Minor (August 6 and 7). I want to thank my editor from preventing me from making a total fool of myself, because in both my story drafts, I spelled it Sebelius. 

I know better, and I know where this comes from. My first career (1981-2011) was as a political journalist, where I wrote many times about Kathleen Sebelius, a Kansas governor who became Health and Human Services Secretary under President Barack Obama. That’s an explanation, not an excuse, though, and after writing Sibelius 100 times on my virtual blackboard, I think I have it nailed. 

5) See You Next Year at the Grant Park Festival, only earlier, one hopes. 

The sculptural Jay Pritzker Pavilion, designed by architect Frank Gehry, on the last week of the Grant Park Music festival. Photo by Bob Benenson.

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