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American music is lodestar of 2015 Grant Park concert constellation; price is heavenly – free

Submitted by on Jan 8, 2015 – 7:33 pm

Pritzker Pavilion during the daytime Grant Park Music Festival 2014 (Christopher Neseman)

Preview: Artistic director Carlos Kalmar reflects on the 2015 season of the Grant Park Music Festival, just announced, which celebrates American greats alongside an appealing mix of symphonic classics.

By Nancy Malitz

It is one of the glories of Chicago’s summer and a thrilling populist tradition, the Grant Park Music Festival at Millennium Park, where the one-size-fits-all lawn price – free! – means that if you’ve got a blanket, your place under the stars is guaranteed. The stage of the Jay Pritzker Pavilion is framed by the signature billowing stainless steel forms of architect Frank Gehry. They seem caught in full sail, and a trellis system of suspended loudspeakers reaches over the Great Lawn, delivering  a rich, clean sound that makes you feel close to the action even as you enjoy Lake Michigan’s cooling breeze.

Billowy stainless steel sails surround the concert stage at Pritzker Pavilion (Christopher_Neseman)The 2015 season of concerts by the full-size Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus also includes visits to other Chicago Park District neighborhoods throughout the city as part of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s “Night Out in the Parks” program.

But the centerpiece is the stunning downtown setting and the tradition behind it, extending all the way back to 1930s. There really isn’t another festival quite like it in the U.S., especially considering the broad musical streak of Americana that runs through it.

A surprisingly broad streak, coming as it does from the vision of the Uruguay-born Austrian Carlos Kalmar, the Vienna trained artistic director and principal conductor who has led the Grant Park Orchestra since 2000. The very definition of a citizen of the world, Kalmar at 56 also leads two other orchestras — the Oregon Symphony and, in Madrid, the Spanish Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra. Kalmar readily admits that when he was honing his professional skills in Vienna in the early 1980s, American music wasn’t really on his radar.

“My knowledge was limited to ‘Rhapsody in Blue‘ and that’s about it,” he says by telephone from his studio in Oregon. From the late ’80s forward he was leading orchestras in Hamburg, Stuttgart, Dessau and Vienna, again with little demand for the American stuff.

Artistic director Carlos Kalmar conducts the Grant Park Festival Orchestra (Patrick Pyszka)But once Kalmar’s in a country, he drenches himself in its culture, calling it a duty — although considering his gusto for exploring, it’s surely his delight: One of this year’s sleepers is a funky piano concerto by Paul Schoenfield called “Four Parables,” with individual movement titles such as “Rambling Till The Butcher Cuts Us Down” and “Senility’s Ride” and “Dog Heaven.” (Catch it Aug. 14-15.)

“I owe that one to my artistic administrator here in Oregon,” says Kalmar. “He said, ‘Hey, listen to this piece I am sure you never heard of.’ And I thought, Wow!, this is amazingly cool, really great writing!”

The list of American titles overall is lively and varied: George Antheil’s 1925 “Jazz Symphony,” George Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F, Leonard Bernstein’s Suite from “Fancy Free” and “Rounds for String Orchestra” by Bernstein’s contemporary David Diamond, the third symphony by the dean of African-American classical composers, William Grant Still (1895-1978), and a four-minute piece called “Drip” by 31-year-old composer Andrew Norman that was — ironically — rained out last year.

Yevgeny Sudbin will perform Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 1. (Clive Barda)Symphonic classics figure large on almost every program, too. London-based Russian pianist Yevgeny Sudbin will open the season with Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (June 17); American pianist Andrew von Oeyen will perform Saint-Saëns’ fiery Piano Concerto No. 2 (July 24-25), and cellist Johannes Moser, who made his Carnegie Hall debut last season, will perform Lalo’s Cello Concerto.

The symphonies include Beethoven’s Seventh  (June 17), Shostakovich’s Sixth (June 19-20), Tchaikovsky’s Fourth (June 24), Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances (July 1). Dvořák’s Sixth (July 29), Bruckner’s Sixth (Aug. 1) and Franck’s Symphony in D minor (July 8).

Other big works include Mozart’s overture to “The Magic Flute” (June 19-20), Wagner’s prelude to “Parsifal (June 26-27), Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” excerpts  (July 15), Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben” (Aug. 14-15),

“I say to everybody from Europe that Chicago was always a city of very interesting architecture, and a very beautiful city,” Kalmar says. “And now in the center of town to have one of the most incredible outdoor venues that exist on this planet only adds to the phenomenal impact this festival is able to provide to the culture of summers in Chicago.”

A full chronological list can be found here. The items below – American and otherwise – look particularly intriguing for the summer of 2015. (Concerts are generally on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights, with free lunchtime rehearsals Tuesday through Friday.)

  • Kenji Bunch is composing 'Symphony No. 3 - Dream Songs' (Erica Lyn)Kenji Bunch is writing a big piece for both chorus and orchestra called Symphony No. 3: “Dream Songs,” inspired by Smithsonian Institution research about Native American culture. Bunch also plays viola and bluegrass fiddle, and as a composer has been long active in cutting-edge ensembles such as the Flux Quartet, Ne(x)tworks and fEarNoMusic. “I hope he is sitting at home composing!” says Kalmar, who knows him well. “We decided to go after a composer very late in this year’s process. It’s one thing to ask for 10 minutes of music on short notice, but it’s a real challenge to write a 30-35 minute piece for chorus and orchestra in just seven months and we need the materials by late April.” World premieres, he says, are by definition exciting: “Nobody really knows which pieces we are premiering will stay with us for the next 50, 60, even 80 years.” (June 19-20.)
  • Scottish composer James MacMillan (Philip Gatward)“Quickening,” a vast choral-orchestral work by Scottish composer James MacMillan about conception and the beginning of life, will receive its Midwest premiere and features a children’s chorus representing the unborn child, a quartet of solo male singers and choral writing of great complexity that includes nonsense texts that have to be mastered. “There are certain pieces in the repertoire that seem to have Grant Park written all over them, and this is one,” says Kalmar. The Grant Park Chorus, directed by Christopher Bell, numbers more than a hundred and routinely performs challenging works requiring extended forces. “I remember talking to (former Chicago Symphony artistic administrator) Nick Winter about it, and he said he was envious because it was the type of work that’s expensive to perform and that puts a big orchestra in a tricky spot if they have to sell tickets for it.” Lawn listeners, by contrast, tend to be quite open to free discoveries. (June 26-27.)
  • Elgar’s oratorio “The Kingdom,” another blockbuster choral-orchestra extravaganza, stems from 1906 and follows the lives of Jesus’ disciples. Soloists include some of the festival’s biggest name singers of the season — soprano Erin Wall as the Blessed Virgin, mezzo-soprano Jill Grove as Mary Magdalene, tenor Garrett Sorenson as St. John and baritone Brian Mulligan as St. Peter. The oratorio itself is rarely done, but it is noted in particular for a setting of the Lord’s Prayer and for the depiction of the disciples’ empowering vision at Pentecost. (Aug. 21-22.)
  • Guest conductor Karina Canellakis (Todd Rosenberg)Two promising young conductors will make their first appearances – the American Karina Canellakis, currently in her first year as assistant conductor at the Dallas Symphony, and the German Christoph König, who currently holds positions in Galicia (Spain) and Luxembourg. “These are fresh faces for us,” Kalmar says. “I tell you a little bit of reality, the great thing is that we have the wonderful Chicago Symphony and Riccardo Muti, who is really terrific, and they can go after the very big names and get whoever they want. But we normally work only nine months to a year and a half in advance in planning and so we are sometimes fortunate to be able to get some of these new artists sooner.” (Canellakis, July 8; König, July 31-Aug. 1.)
  • Stephen Sondheim’s many Broadway hits will be on tap when Paul Gemignani, a longtime Sondheim collaborator, helps celebrate the composer’s 85th birthday with hits from “Into the Woods,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Merrily We Roll Along,” “Company,” “Follies” and “Sunday in the Park with George.” (July 10-11.)
  • Composer John Adams poses with George Washington (Deborah O’Grady)Computer and video gamers will recognize fantastical segments from the soundtracks of “Sid Meier’s Civilization IV” and “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” in John Adams’ hair-raising 1985 masterpiece “Harmonielehre.”  It’s a deeply affecting work that some have called Adams’  “postmodern” response to Wagner, Sibelius and Mahler, because it brashly mocks the past even as it assimilates it. Adams’ roots are minimalist, and fans of minimalist music will love this score, but aficionados of late romantic music are likely to feel just as much at home. It’s an event for multiple generations. (Aug. 7-8.)