Updated: August 18, 2013 3:59PM
Has it already been two months since the Grant Park Music Festival launched its 79th season? The 10 weeks of 22 programs delivered in 31 concerts have whizzed by in one of the strongest summer seasons — of an almost always strong series — in memory.
For the summer’s last weekend, I decided to watch and listen to the Friday night concert (Saturday’s repeat was the last festival performance until next June; Sept. 17 holds the festival’s annual benefit, at the Fairmont Hotel) from the side walls overlooking the stage, the seats and the Great Lawn. The sound is terrific from these vantage points. The views are unmatched. (The east wall perch also takes in the city’s skylines.) And the sense of community is enough to float a body for days.
More than 13,000 people had packed the area for a program of John Adams and Igor Stravinsky. Of course, these concerts are free, but no one has to spend 90 minutes or two hours quietly and attentively listening to something he or she doesn’t wish to hear — even for free. The monetary side of the arts has always been complex and problematic, but such nights and such a festival remind us that classical music is very much alive. And the soundtrack to “The Lord of the Rings” was somewhere very far away.
In his second season as artistic director and 14th as principal conductor, Carlos Kalmar has been a first-rank steward. His emergence as a leading interpreter of American music — a skill and affinity that surprised the Uruguayan-Austrian conductor himself as much as anyone — was on full display in both Adams’ full-scale 1981 “Harmonium” for large orchestra and chorus, and the 1989 curtain-raiser, an “orchestral realization” of the second of two Liszt 1822 piano works titled “The Black Gondola” — meditations on the canals of Venice and the impending death of Liszt’s son-in-law, Richard Wagner.
“Harmonium” sets texts of John Donne and Emily Dickinson in that way that Adams has had for decades of trying out something new and coming up with a work fully formed and self-contained. The Berkeley composer’s first piece with text finds him taking words apart from rather challenging poems about love and death — Donne’s “Negative Love” and Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” and “Wild Nights” — to reassemble them as sound patterns and vessels and somehow both doing that and getting to the heart of their meaning.
As in the Liszt setting, atmosphere and movement are created musically. It’s hard to imagine a piece better suited to such an outdoor seance, Adams going so often for mood, contemplation and even a kind of hypnosis during the half-hour work. Christopher Bell’s outstanding chorus had as its guest leader former Lyric Opera Chorus director Donald Nally, now based at Northwestern and so effective with the singers on shape, sense and diction.
After the interval, Grant Park gave its tribute to the centennial of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” Especially in a year of multiple commemorative performances, programs and conferences, we aren’t expecting new things with each presentation of the now-classic work. But as a showcase for just how strong this orchestra is now, the playing Friday was hard to beat. From principal bassoon Eric Hall’s serpentine opening figures through every rhythmic shift and percussive crash through a small string fillip at the end — courtesy of the 2000 Kalmus “corrected edition,” edited after decades of research by the legendary error-collector and score researcher Clinton Nieweg — one heard a highly skilled, beautiful ensemble, with individual section and solo styles and stamps and nothing machine-like. Hangings of stagewide paintings by the Joffrey Ballet’s longtime designer Herbert Migdoll added an additional festive touch.
My neighbors in the course of the evening ranged in age from under a year to 90 (I asked), from longtime Chicagoans to tourists who’d stumbled with their families on the concert to many young people. Countries and backgrounds represented just next to me: China, Bangladesh, Italy, Spain, Nigeria, Ecuador, Mexico, Pakistan, African-American, Jewish, Pakistan, and more. The profile of our city in summer. Everyone I could spot over the whole of the park seemed entranced. And when the works were over — but not before — they roared their approval.