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Musical Stars and Stripes will fly all summer as Grant Park celebrates American composers

Submitted by on Jul 3, 2015 – 5:00 pm

When the weather is right and the theme is American music, there's no better place to be than the Grant Park Music Festival at Millennium Park. (Christopher Neseman)

Preview: From Gershwin and Bernstein to William Grant Still, authentic American music is on the bill, including the July 4 weekend. Bring a blanket — the lawn is free. The festival runs through Aug. 22.
By Daniel Hautzinger

The season programming of a major orchestra may as well be a roster of EU politicians, with its preponderance of German, Russian, and French names. But in the programming for this year’s Grant Park Music Festival, Americans make a greater showing.

The free Festival concerts are held mostly in the heart of downtown at Millennium Park, where passers-by, commuters, tourists and families might easily be lured to Frank Gehry’s dynamic and monumental Pritzker Pavilion by the magnificent swell of an orchestra, then decide to stay and enjoy a concert on the lawn.

Now in its 81st season, the Festival is consistently adventurous in its programming, embodying the exploratory spirit of generations of composers who have sought to create an intrinsically American music. People who might never encounter classical music can casually happen upon it there, so the Festival offers an uncommon opportunity to let people experience all the passion, power and excitement possible.

Hanging out on the lawn for an All-American 4th of July is a Grant Park tradition. (Norman Timonera)

The Fourth of July is obviously the high water mark for American music in the summer, and the Grant Park Orchestra, joined by pianist Terrence Wilson and conducted by festival chorus director Christopher Bell, will duly celebrate the holiday with Gershwin’s jazz-inflected 1925 Piano Concerto in F and Copland’s beloved 1944  “Appalachian Spring” in addition to shorter, celebratory works. (European music has crept into this most American of holidays: Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” will also be performed, as it probably will be across the country).

On Friday, July 3, Principal Conductor Carlos Kalmar leads the Orchestra in the 1944 “Rounds” by David Diamond, who, like Copland, Roy Harris, Elliott Carter, Philip Glass, and many other prominent American composers, discovered his American identity while studying in Paris with the renowned pedagogue Nadia Boulanger.

Distinctly American music is championed throughout the summer season. The festival opened in mid-June with the world premiere of “Dream Songs,” a choral symphony by Kenji Bunch based on native American texts.

On Wednesday, July 8, Karina Canellakis conducts Leonard Bernstein’s Suite from “Fancy Free,” a 1944 ballet choreographed by Jerome Robbins that depicts lower Manhattan with syncopated, bluesy licks and songs. At one time, jazz was the epitome of that American urban life, and it has been a significant and fruitful influence on classical composers.

African-American composer William Grant Still composed themes reminiscent of spirituals for his 1958 “Sunday Symphony,” which will be performed by the Grant Park Orchestra under the baton of Hollywood Bowl principal conductor Thomas Wilkins on Wednesday, July 29.  Czech composer Antonín Dvořák, who wrote original themes embodying the qualities of Native American music in his 1893 “New World” Symphony, had earlier suggested that African-American spirituals could be “the foundation of a serious and original school of composition” in the U.S. Although Dvořák’s own example has come to be viewed in some quarters as cultural imperialism, Still’s music exemplifies Dvořák’s ideal.

The festival orchestra will play American composer Jennifer Higdon's 'Fanfare Ritmico' (J. Henry Fair)Most 20th-century American composers have chosen to eschew folk-song as their principal musical material, simply composing what they want without trying to sound “American,” and the Grant Park Music Festival features many examples:

Samuel Barber trusted that his individual voice was sufficient and did not require a folk accent. On Wednesday, July 22, his single-movement 1935 Symphony No. 1 will be performed by the Grant Park Orchestra under Ward Stare, along with  Jennifer Higdon’s 2000 “Fanfare Ritmico,” which celebrates, the composer says, “the rhythms of man and machine.” The concert also has selections from American operas, including Menotti’s 1947 one-act hilarity “The Telephone” and Douglas Cuomo’s 2013 “Doubt,”  based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a clash of wills inside a Catholic School. Cuomo is a jazz guitarist and composer best known for writing the theme song to “Sex in the City,” that encapsulation of modern American urban life. Singers from the Lyric Opera’s Ryan Opera Center will perform.

Randall Thompson, whose 1931 Symphony No. 2 will be performed on Wednesday, Aug. 5, was on the faculty of both the Curtis Institute of Music and Harvard, and taught Leonard Bernstein.

Paul Schoenfeld's wildly eclectic piano concerto 'Four Parables' comes in August.Paul Schoenfield is a wildly eclectic composer who draws on jazz, vaudeville, Gershwin, Bartók and more modern influences. His 1983 concerto “Four Parables” will feature pianist Natasha Paremski on Friday and Saturday, Aug. 14-15,

John Adams, pre-eminent among living American composers, is the focus of another August concert conducted by Kalmar, featuring the pulsating 1985 epic “Harmonielehre,” on Friday and Saturday, Aug. 7-8.

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