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Grant Slam

The country’s largest free summer outdoor classical music series tunes up for another extraordinary year.

The Grant Park Music Festival at Millennium Park

Summertime, and the listening is easy—sometimes too easy. Familiar chestnuts like Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue typically fill the air at outdoor symphonic festivals, with the result that people tend to hear, rather than listen to, the music.

At the Grant Park Music Festival in Millennium Park, however, trotting out battle-scarred warhorses is uncommon. Artistic Director and Principal Conductor Carlos Kalmar sees to that.

“We have established our reputation based on the fact that we are not a festival that programs only the warhorses,” says Kalmar. “Because the festival is free, we have way greater freedom to program unfamiliar works. We’ve walked a clear line in mixing familiar works along those you may never hear again.”

This season, which begins with a performance on June 12 featuring young violinist Stefan Jackiw tackling Mozart’s Turkish Violin Concerto, contains a slew of rarely performed works, including Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto, Britten’s monumental War Requiem (with the Grant Park Chorus), Roberto Sierra’s Concerto for Saxophones (with soloist James Carter), as well as the Chicago premiere of Qigang Chen’s Iris Dévoilée.

The gratis festival began in 1935 with the idea of boosting the mood of Depression-weary Chicagoans. Financed by corporations, foundations and individual donors, the music continues to lift spirits today.

Concerts were first performed at the Petrillo Music Shell. Since 2004, the programs, which Kalmar says usually draw “8,000 and upwards,” have been held at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.

Listening to music under a starry sky accompanied by soft lake breezes sounds romantic, but the Uruguay-born Kalmar, who assumed his conducting post in 2000 and has been artistic director since 2011, knows only too well the hazards of performing alfresco: wind, rain, heat, insects and pitch-altering humidity. Last summer’s sweltering weather is a case in point.

“We intended to perform Brahms’ Tragic Overture, but the city issued a heat warning,” the conductor recalls. Tragically, the Tragic had to be excised because of provisions in the musicians’ contract limiting the duration of concerts during scorching temps. “I regretted cutting the Brahms,” Kalmar says, “but afterward a musician presented me with a T-shirt that said, ‘Too Hot for Brahms!’”

Kalmar, who helms the Oregon Symphony and the Spanish Radio/Television Orchestra in Madrid when he’s not in Chicago, also once had to truncate a concert when a swarm of insects descended. “Every time my brass players were breathing in, they’d get a mouthful of about 20 bugs,” he says.

Although concerts are rarely canceled, Kalmar remembers a monsoon a few years ago that nearly nixed an appearance by the band Pink Martini, when, as Kalmar says, “all hell broke loose with a massive downpour.” The rain abated and the concert started late, but the experience didn’t faze the group; Pink Martini is returning this year.

When asked what accounts for the festival’s longevity, Kalmar cites its rock-solid tradition.

“Once the festival was established, nobody could ever imagine that it could ever leave,”
he says. “It’s part of what makes the city so culturally exciting during the summer.”

For a full lineup of concerts visit