By Lori Dana
The “dog days” of summer have arrived in Chicago bringing with them some unique challenges for our city’s premiere outdoor music event. The Grant Park Music Festival has garnered press and public acclaim for its annual Fourth of July extravaganza, hosted by irrepressible choirmaster Christopher Bell whose over-the-top patriotic costumes are a highly anticipated part of an otherwise traditional musical program. But what do you do to lure patrons to the Pritzker Pavilion in the evenings directly before and after that hugely popular event? Both vehicle and foot traffic can be more challenging around the 4th, and concert times must accommodate the rival Taste of Chicago (across Monroe Street to the south), whose insistent thump of rock music has to subside before the Grant Park Orchestra tunes up.
GPMF has met the challenge admirably with compelling programs designed to appeal to an audience for the more unusual. On July 1st and 2nd, music director Carlos Kalmar led the orchestra and chorus in an all-Czech program featuring Antonín Dvořák’s The Golden Spinning Wheel and a haunting oratorio, The Epic of Gilgamesh, from a lesser known Czech composer, Bohuslav Martinü. The concert began with a witty introduction by maestro Kalmar, who outlined the theme for the evening with details from a Czech fairy tale (Spinning Wheel) and an ancient myth (Gilgamesh) both of which he pointed out, are much more gory than the Grimm’s Fairy Tales many of us grew up with (and now refuse to read to our kids because we think they’re too scary.) Both pieces were fascinating examples of musical storytelling: the Dvořák intimate and detailed, the Martinü sweeping and monumental.
This week the festival is bringing audiences into the modern era. The July 6th program featured a screening of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, with the film score played live by the Grant Park Orchestra under the baton of conductor Andrés Franco. Even though images were provided for the audience this time, the music was still telling the story. For those unfamiliar with the film, (which is considered the apex of Chaplin’s career as both an actor and director) the program was a delightful learning experience. For Chaplin fans, it was a rare opportunity to experience the film as it was premiered in 1931. Amazingly, it was a huge hit, even though “talkies” had already become the industry standard. City Lights was the first film for which Chaplin (a self-taught musician with no formal training) composed the score. The orchestral arrangements for the GPMF presentation were those of composer and arranger Carl Davis, who adapted Chaplin’s original scores for the modern releases of City Lights and The Gold Rush. The screening and concert in the Pritzker Pavilion had the feel of a once in a lifetime experience, but one that hopefully the festival will be moved to repeat.
The week will conclude with two evenings of popular standards by one of America’s greatest and most beloved 20th Century composers. A quartet of Broadway greats, backed by the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus, will present a comprehensive program of Cole Porter on Friday and Saturday under a canopy of stars on the Great Lawn. It will be a fitting conclusion to a wild and wonderful week in Millennium Park. Tonight we’ll be toasting the imaginative ways our festival has been reaching out to engage new audiences, even as we anticipate the return of great symphonies and classical masterpieces, secure in the knowledge that we will continue to be challenged, surprised, and delighted.
(2016 Grant Park Music Festival, runs through August 20 at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park 312-742-7647)