Review: Stirring Vocals and Rhetorical Fireworks at Grant Park Celebration

One of the principles we celebrate on Independence Day is freedom of speech. And some of the principals participating in the Grant Park Music Festival‘s Independence Day Salute Saturday exercised that right freely in vocalizing their objections to troubling events in the nation and around the world.

One of these was Dale Taylor, CEO of Abelson Taylor, a health care advertising agency and longtime benefactor of the festival. In his remarks introducing Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Taylor joked that he had called right-wing Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and invited him to join Lightfoot, who recently exclaimed “Fuck Clarence Thomas!” after the Supreme Court ruled to overturn the Roe v. Wade abortion rights precedent.

In his punchline, Taylor said Thomas declined, telling Taylor that he was busy “drawing up a list of rights to be abolished.”

Conductor Christopher Bell’s holiday-themed outfits are traditions of the Grant Park Orchestra’s Independence Day Salute; this is his first outfit. Photo by Bob Benenson.

Lightfoot herself took a more measured approach. “We need to remember that we as Americans have so much to be grateful and thankful for despite the winds that blow up or tear us apart,” she said. “What we need to remember, in this time of celebrating our history and the founding of our country, is there’s so much more that brings us together.”

She continued, “Someone once said that we will always be the land of the free as long as we remain the land of the brave. And right now we need Americans to remember our bravery. We need to make sure that we stand up for our rights, and that we come together as Americans and neighbors.”

Christopher Bell, director of the Grant Park Chorus, and, as is custom, conductor of the Independence Day Salute, also weighed in. He noted that Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture—a July 4th staple for years— was omitted because it wouldn’t be appropriate, a reference to Russia’s brutal ongoing invasion of Ukraine. “March of the Women,” a protest song written in 1911 by British composer and suffragette Ethel Smyth, was added to the program at the start of the concert’s second half and sung only by the women in the chorus.

The rest of the concert was pure Americana, a balm for those in the audience who love their country but worry about its direction.

Bell’s second holiday-themed outfit. Photo by Bob Benenson.

The immensely charming Bell, born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, has become known for wearing unique outfits for the July 4th concerts, and he did not disappoint.

For the first half of the concert of the concert he wore a sequined red, white and blue visor, blue sleeveless tunic over a white jersey with red and white striped sleeves. For the second half he wore a motorcycle jacket with an American flag on the back, USA on the sleeves, flared and star-spangled flag design pants and cowboy boots.

The Grant Park Chorus, celebrating its 60th anniversary throughout this summer’s concert series, was featured cprominently on Saturday, beginning with a choral arrangement of the national anthem by composer Eric Whitacre (Bell asked the audience to eschew trying to sing along because of the tempo and key changes).

The chorus also provided stirring renditions of “I Hear America Singing” by André Thomas, Irving Berlin’s “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor” (a musical version of the poem “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus that is closely associated with the Statue of Liberty), “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Aaron Copland’s “The Promise of Living” from The Tender Land, “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and “America the Beautiful.”

A Marine veteran stands during the playing of his service’s anthem as part of the Armed Forces Salute. Photo by Bob Benenson.

The purely orchestral works included John Williams’ “Liberty Fanfare;” a medley of George Gershwin songs; Glenn Miller’s big-band “In The Mood;” the bluegrass tune “Orange Blossom Special;” “From Sea to Shining Sea,” a medley, arranged by Robert Wendel, composed of tunes associated with U.S. cities and states, including “Chicago (My Kind of Town),” of course; and the traditional “Armed Forces Salute” that invites military veterans to stand while their service’s anthem is played.

The Grant Park Orchestra’s flutists donned Uncle Sam hats for their solo in “Stars and Stripes Forever.” Photo by Bob Benenson.

The evening concluded with John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever,” which, let’s face it, really is more appropriate in any year than The 1812 Overture.

The concert was a short turnaround for Bell, who on Wednesday (June 29) and Friday (July 1) had conducted the Grant Park Music Festival’s classical concerts in relief of Artistic Director Carlos Kalmar, who is recovering from a reportedly mild case of COVID-19.

There was a touch of modern politics there too. The concert led off with Jean Sibelius’ Finlandia, written in 1899 in support of Finland’s demands for independence from Imperial Russia. This was followed by a modern sacred choral piece, In Principio (In the Beginning), by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, who put the New Testament’s Gospel of John to music. The Grant Park Chorus again stood out in the evening’s featured piece, Benjamin Britten’s long but mostly charming Spring Symphony.

The Grant Park Music Festival this week will present two programs that are more spectacle than concert.

On Wednesday (July 6) there is Cirque Goes Hollywood, with the orchestra providing the music for the aerialists and jugglers of Troupe Vertigo. The performance starts at 6:30pm. Tickets for the front seating area at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion range from $26 to $135 and can be purchased by clicking here. General admission seating in the back of the house and on the Great Lawn is free.

Friday (July 8) and Saturday (July 9) bring Lights on Broadway, the festival’s annual review of show tunes. This year’s performance includes vocals by Broadway veterans Capathia Jenkins, who on May 30 rocked the Harris Theater in Chicago Philharmonic’s Aretha Rising tribute to Aretha Franklin, and Sam Simakh. Performances start a little later, at 8pm, to avoid conflict with Taste of Chicago.

Tickets for Lights on Broadway range from $26 to $95 and can be purchased by clicking here. General admission seating in the back of the house and on the Great Lawn is free.

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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.