Grant Park Music Festival returns in 2021 with lawn pods, lithe ensembles, and a little season

Hannah Edgar

Chicago Tribune

May 05, 2021 12:01 AM

This summer’s Grant Park Music Festival festivities won’t be Beethoven as usual.

From July 2 to Aug. 21, the festival orchestra and chorus will return to their home at Pritzker Pavilion, marking the unofficial opening of public summer events at the venue. Though safety protocols will transform the festival’s sound and duration, Grant Park’s core mission remains intact: The 2021 season includes a healthy offering of programmatic rarities, the chorus will sing its usual six programs, and, yes, lawn spots will remain free of charge.

The festival will run for eight weeks instead of its usual 10 — kicking off with its traditional July 4 concert, in a bold change of pace — and only a maximum of 65 instrumentalists and singers will perform on any given program. A dramatic change in stage configuration will bring the chorus out in front of the orchestra, with brass in the choir loft for some heftier works. In accordance with safety protocols negotiated with the American Guild of Musical Artists, the union representing Grant Park Festival Chorus members, choristers will sing masked and spaced six feet apart side-to-side and nine feet front-to-back.

“We wondered, how do we take a smaller contingent and still create a season that feels like a Grant Park Music Festival?” says festival president and CEO Paul Winberg. “This organization has always been committed to bringing live music back to Millennium Park for live audiences, no matter what barriers were thrown our way.”

By affecting instrumentation, safety precautions have shifted Grant Park’s season programming. The meaty choral-orchestral repertoire of yesteryear, which once convened hundreds of musicians on the Pritzker Pavilion stage, is off the table this season. Instead, the festival will lean into Baroque and classical choral works, chamber orchestra rep, and pieces with offbeat instrumentation, like Bruckner’s E minor Mass for wind band and choir (July 21).

The thought of the Grant Park Music Festival ending its run with an 18th-century military panegyric like Handel’s “Dettingen Te Deum” (Aug. 20 and 21) would have quirked eyebrows any other season. This summer, it’s a necessity — and, Winberg argues, a rare opportunity.

“We’re able to present some repertoire we’ve talked about in the past, but which didn’t quite make sense because they might have underutilized the orchestra,” he says. “We did have to scale back, but we’re proud that Christopher (Bell, chorus director) and Carlos (Kalmar, principal conductor) maintained the uniqueness and breadth of the festival.”

Obviously, the Pritzker Pavilion stage won’t be the only space with occupancy restrictions. Taking cues from state-imposed indoor venue guidelines, the pavilion and lawn will admit just 25% of its usual capacity for concerts. Adjusted for layout and visibility, that comes out to about 850 people in the pavilion seats and an additional 2,000 on the lawn.

Grant Park Music Festival members who pony up for season seats will pay the same amount they did in previous seasons. Nor will much change for lawn loungers, who can still pack their own picnic to enjoy al fresco. However, they must limit their groups to six people each, and stay within their predesignated “pod,” denoted by 8-foot-by-12-foot perimeters spray-painted on the lawn and enforced by festival staff. All attendees are required to enter the festival grounds with a mask.

Hopeful attendees must make reservations once seats go live the Monday before a concert. Those who go to Grant Park’s website only to find a fully booked lawn need not fear: The festival will set aside a to-be-announced number of pods for walk-ins at each concert. Without that element of musical discovery, Winberg argues, Grant Park just wouldn’t be Grant Park.

“(Walk-ins) are an important aspect of the openness of the festival, and it’s an important part of building audience,” Winberg says.

If there ever was a Grant Park season for building audience, it may well be this one. The 2021 festival program reads like a who’s who of crowd-pleasers, with performances of Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” (July 7), Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” (July 9 and 10), symphonies by Brahms (No. 3, July 9 and 10) and Beethoven (No. 1, July 14), Dvořák’s “New World Symphony” (July 23 and 24), Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” (July 28), Offenbach’s “Overture to Orpheus in the Underworld” (Aug. 11), and the festival’s usual Broadway tribute (Aug. 13 and 14).

Notably, the Grant Park Music Festival presents just one world premiere this summer rather than its usual handful, but it will be a particularly auspicious one: Before the onset of the pandemic, Grant Park tapped to-be Chicago Symphony Mead composer-in-residence Jessie Montgomery for a new viola concerto, premiering July 16 and 17. The work, “L.E.S. Characters,” will be performed by Masumi Per Rostad. Once a Chicago mainstay as the former violist of Pacifica Quartet, Per Rostad makes his festival debut with the commission.

Montgomery’s work will be preceded a few nights earlier by that of another Mead alumna: Anna Clyne’s “Sound and Fury,” performed on July 14. If Montgomery and Clyne’s inclusion doesn’t make it clear already, even the contemporary composers tapped this season are marquee names: Works by Jonathan Dove (”The Passing of the Year,” July 21) and Caroline Shaw (the string orchestra version of her “Entr’acte,” in a streamed program at Harris Theater on July 30 and 31) appear later that month, as well. The 2021 season even sneaks in its usual nod to Portland’s classical scene with a work by composer Texu Kim. Formerly Portland-based and now on faculty at San Diego State University, Kim makes his Grant Park debut with his 2016 work “Blow, Fly, Pop!!” on July 23 and 24.

Usually those cross-country connections are etched by principal conductor Carlos Kalmar, who helms the Oregon Symphony most of the year. Not unlike Montgomery’s commission, however, Kim’s Portland connection was a happy coincidence: The idea to program Kim’s music came not from Kalmar but Eun Sun Kim, the recently named music director of the San Francisco Opera and guest conductor of that July 23 and 24 program. The following month, Norman Huynh and Lawrence Loh make up deferred podium appearances with Aug. 11′s family night concert and the Broadway program, respectively.

Guest musicians in general are relatively few and far between this summer. Choral works with solo roles will spotlight Grant Park Festival Chorus members instead of jetting in vocal soloists. Flutist Anthony Trionfo (playing Saverio Mercadante’s 1814 Flute Concerto in E Minor) and pianist Joyce Yang (performing Grieg’s “Piano Concerto”) make their festival debuts on July 28 and Aug. 11, while violinists Augustin Hadelich (in Sibelius’s Violin Concerto, Aug. 6 and 7) and Vadim Gluzman (closing out the festival with Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 on Aug. 20 and 21) make welcome returns as season soloists.

Wondering what will become of Grant Park’s doomed 2020 season? Keep your ears open, says Winberg. A shorter run and tighter budget this summer meant the festival needed to bump some highlights to next season, including much-fêted world premieres by Billy Childs, the 2020 festival’s composer-in-residence, and Chicago-based composer Mischa Zupko.

“We were excited to preserve the premiere of Jessie Montgomery’s viola concerto — that had always been scheduled for 2021, and we were able to maintain that. Ultimately, though, a 10-week season gives a more robust platform to present more repertoire,” Winberg says.

Just like the glorious sound-bleed from the pavilion into the surrounding park and Loop, the implications of the Grant Park Music Festival’s return resound far beyond its programming, personnel or even audience. Those eight weeks in Millennium Park could set the tone for summer festivals to come — if all goes according to plan. As the festival marches to the beat of its own timpani, other presenters will be watching closely.

Hannah Edgar is a freelance writer.

The Rubin Institute for Music Criticism helps fund our classical music coverage. The Chicago Tribune maintains complete editorial control over assignments and content.

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