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‘Romeo & Juliet’ soars in Grant Park Music Fest’s indoor outing

Eric Owens | DARIO ACOSTA

Eric Owens | DARIO ACOSTA

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GRANT PARK MUSIC FESTIVAL

‘Romeo and Juliet’
Carlos Kalmar, conducting

RECOMMENDED

When: Repeats June 14 at 7:30 p.m.

Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress

Tickets: Free

Info: (312) 742-7638; grantparkmusicfestival.com

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Updated: July 17, 2014 11:08AM



Life gave the Grant Park Music Festival lemons this week and the enterprising cultural public service entity made much more than lemonade from them. Think of a Champagne punch made from the best French vintage.

Somehow venue scheduling had the Chicago Blues Festival going at the Petrillo Music Shell at the same times and dates that the free outdoor classical music series was to be performing the Berlioz “Romeo and Juliet” at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion a couple of blocks to the north.

Shrewd Grant Park festival president and C.E.O. Paul Winberg did not panic, though. Instead, working with his colleagues on South Michigan Avenue, he pulled a lapin out of a chapeau: For the first time, Grant Park was transported to the historic Auditorium Theatre , remaining free, and offering near infinite accommodation with over 4,000 seats.

The felicity of this transfer is hard to overestimate. The Auditorium was designed and built to present just such grand offerings. The name of Berlioz is even carved on one side of the great gold stage screen, along with those of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Verdi. This expansive, democratic space was just the sort of world Berlioz had in mind when he wrote this “symphony with choruses” fifty years before the Chicago landmark opened.

Although it was the original home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for almost 15 years, and of the city’s great early opera companies, there have hardly been any major orchestra concerts there at all in recent decades. Dance companies and special events call it home now. And the sprawling Berlioz tale on Shakespeare’s play is itself a performance rarity, most memorably done in the area more than 25 years ago by the CSO and CSO Chorus with James Levine at Ravinia.

Carlos Kalmar, with only a couple of “Gee, we are in a new place — and indoors!” adjustment moments, worked his customary brief available preparation time magic Friday night. (There was only one rehearsal in the Auditorium itself at all) and brought the 100-minute score fully to life (with one intermission half-way through). Christopher Bell’s chorus is ever the envy of many other ensembles and they were very musical and very French.

Berlioz tells his own tale, a reaction to the star-crossed lovers’ story and its themes, really, and uses a funny line-up of singers — a mezzo and a tenor, who sing, relatively briefly, but do not portray the title characters, and then a long concluding section for low male voice — as Friar Laurence! Julie Boulianne and Paul Appleby were just about perfect in their disembodied parts. And what a unique pleasure to hear the famed Auditorium acoustics without vocal amplification! Bass-baritone Eric Owens completed his Chicago trifecta by adding Grant Park to his regular homes here at the CSO and Lyric Opera of Chicago. Authoritative, warm and idiomatic, he made his character much more than the dull figure Berlioz created in his text.

By the Saturday repeat, some of the freneticism of the Ball Scene will be more under control, one would assume. But other orchestral set pieces, including Juliet’s tomb, and the oft-excerpted Queen Mab Scherzo were wholly on Friday night. Principal cello Waltar Haman and young oboe Nathan Mills demonstrated the individual as well as ensemble strengths of the orchestra in their plaintive solos.

Bravo, Grant Park. And more orchestral nights at the Auditorium, please!



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