Long before Lollapalooza and Taste of Chicago became Grant Park mainstays, the classically oriented Grant Park Music Festival put our grand urban greensward on the cultural map. Since its opening concert on July 1, 1935—with a march from Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser on the bill—the festival’s mix of serious music and popular programming has proved irresistible, making it one of those events that define summer in the city. Now, as the festival celebrates its 80th anniversary season, artistic director and principal conductor Carlos Kalmar and chorus director Christopher Bell are offering audiences a wide range of musical experiences, including a world premiere from the renowned, Pulitzer Prize–winning composer William Bolcom and the debut of The Legend of the Northern Lights, with a score by Grammy-nominated composer Christopher Theofanidis and stunning images from astronomer Dr. José Francisco Salgado.
From the start, the festival’s “come one, come all” mission has made for an interesting mix of listeners, with highbrow music aficionados sitting alongside folks just looking for something to occupy a summer’s night. And while the relaxed atmosphere might seem detrimental to classical performance, the festival has never had a problem attracting top-tier talent, with appearances by dozens of stars over the years, including sopranos Lily Pons and Beverly Sills, pianists Van Cliburn and André Watts, and violinists Jascha Heifetz and Joshua Bell—as well as marquee guest conductors like Andre Kostelanetz, Arthur Fiedler, and Erich Leinsdorf.
The festival’s principal conductors (and Kalmar is no exception) have long championed American music and shown an unwavering commitment to present new work by a variety of composers. “We feature things that our colleagues all over America cannot really play because they have the burden of selling tickets,” says Kalmar. “For example, The Book with Seven Seals, by Austrian composer Franz Schmidt—a tremendous piece, with chorus, orchestra, soloists. Nobody would touch that because the return at the box office is so risky. And we program this type of thing all the time.”
That kind of daring does have its drawbacks, however. Clarinetist Charlene Zimmerman, who has played with the Grant Park Orchestra for 38 years, laughingly recalls the time the ensemble essayed Anton Webern’s typically thorny Five Pieces for Orchestra: “It’s all ‘beep, beep, bloop, bloop,’ and with traffic and sirens, nobody could have heard that piece. You have to listen to it on headphones at home to actually hear every note.”
Leonard Slatkin, music director of both the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Orchestre National de Lyon, France, and principal conductor of the Grant Park Orchestra in the mid- ’70s, returns this celebratory season to conduct Dmitri Shostakovich’s rarely performed The Execution of Stepan Razin. Of his days in Chicago, Slatkin says, “There is no question that I learned much from the experience, especially when it came to finding new and not-often-heard pieces. This helped shape my course of thinking for the remainder of my career.”
Whether rendering the familiar or going out on a limb with something new, the Grant Park Music Festival has soothed the souls and opened the ears of countless Chicagoans. And along the way, it has also created a sense of community. In 1940, the newsletter of the Chicago Federation of Musicians included a poem titled “Who Goes to Grant Park Concerts?” While much of it is now dated, one couplet remains so true, so many decades later: “The rich, the poor, the sad, the gay/The weak, the proud, in rich array.”