Grant Park Music Festival Soars at Diminuendo

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From an edifice shaped like the opening phrases of the second movement of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony poured even sweeter sounds when, on Wednesday, July 1, the Grant Park Music Festival marked its seventy-fifth anniversary with a gala; stretched out lazily on blankets or propped primly in wooden folding chairs, the one-thousand-person audience sat in hushed wonder as the music glided from the red and gold stage in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, through the capable hands of conductor Carlos Kalmar, and out to the rapt lawn and the forgettably close bustle of Michigan Avenue.

The meme of the evening was retrospective—not only, as the Friday before, was the material for the evening rife with pieces from the period that birthed the Grant Park Music Festival in the 1930s, but the event itself was a recreation of that inaugural concert, decontextualized and transformed. When, in 1935, this same concert poured out over crowds topping fifty-thousand (according to articles cited at the concert), On the Beautiful Blue Danube was younger than some members of the audience, and the ink was still drying on Powell’s rousing Natchez on the Hill: Three Virginia Country Dances; the audience that had thronged together in the seasonal heat of early July had listened to the music of their time in the same hushed wonder that we inherited from our ancestors seventy-five years later.

What links us with our fellow enthusiasts, no matter the temporal distance, cannot overcome what separates us: We are forced by the evening’s ideal to look back and realize that the origins of our experience are far less humble than its current state. Despite all the excuses the noticeable chill and forecasted rain could provide, there weren’t 49,000 people waiting at home with picnic baskets, blankets, citronella, Gouda, and Shiraz in hand, staring anxiously at the sky as their children sat glued to the computers and relayed minute-by-minute updates on the storm that would never come. When James Petrillo, as president of the Chicago Federation of Musicians and commissioner of the Chicago Park District, started providing free classical-music concerts in Grant Park in 1935, he wanted to give Chicago “accessible music”; and, as his tradition has been handed down over the years and memorialized in the Petrillo Music Shell, the experience has changed. Or, perhaps more disturbingly, our interpretation of the experience has changed.

Those crowds of the past teemed together and heard the music of their age, a happy accident of their generation’s place in history; no matter how epic the stage from which it sounds, classical music in our modern Chicago has lost the temporal relevance and connectivity that it had, in spades, when Petrillo commissioned that first concert. We must see the concert last Wednesday as an homage, insofar as an homage lacks the charming wink of a pastiche.

However altered by the remove of time or lack of novelty our expectations of the Grant Park Music Festival may be, the music, despite some dubious selections that were inflicted equally on us and those first intrepid listeners in the 1930s, was stupendous. Kalmar’s sensitivity to the Wagner, Liszt, and Strauss in particular detailed the dramatic ebb and flow of each piece, fashioning them to be finer than some recordings I own; when delicate, such as the beginning of Mignon‘s overture, his restraint was vivid as he steered the orchestra from a solo section to full sound without flaw or discernible effort.

In these moments, when the romance of Strauss’s Blue Danube has an older couple at the back of the lawn swaying softly to the music, when feet twitch in time to Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, or when even the fireworks grow quiet in awe as the Tannhäuser roars, the granite wall separating the one-thousand listeners of Wednesday and the fifty-thousand listeners of July 1, 1935 falls away, and art bridges our shared experience. Despite my disappointment at the lackluster turnout, for those in attendance from opening tune-up to the finale’s applause, the Grant Park Music Festival fulfilled Petrillo’s dream for music for the masses, no matter how small those masses may be.

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