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Christopher Bell leads at the Grant Park Music Festival

Grant Park Music Festival 2011 | Concert guide

This year’s splendor in Millennium Park brings everything from Finnish flair to a rare oratorio on armageddon.


To classical lovers, nothing spells summer like loading up on plastic cups and wine and hustling down to Pritzker Pavilion for a free evening of sounds under the skyscrapers. Now in its 77th year, the nine-week Grant Park Music Festival provides city dwellers with a thrice-weekly shot of classical fare in Frank Gehry’s swirling band shell. A few indoor shows in Millennium Park’s adjacent Harris Theater supplement the program.

The fest relocated from the frankly awful acoustics of the Petrillo band shell in 2004. “Having a more high-profile venue means that the crowds are twice as big,” says chorus director Christopher Bell, who marks a decade of service with the GPMF this year. “The orchestra and chorus are a great jewel. What we needed was a great mount to show off the jewel.”

A bundle of celebrations is slated to toast Bell’s anniversary. The native Scot, who spends nine months of each year at home in Edinburgh, directs a program of American a cappella choral pieces (Jun 28, 30), a pairing of Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem with Leonard Bernstein’s serene Chichester Psalms (Jul 22, 23) and the annual Independence Celebration (Jul 3).

Unfortunately, Bell misses out on one of the most scintillating events of the season—Franz Schmidt’s rarely performed 1935–37 apocalyptic oratorio, The Book with Seven Seals (Aug 12, 13). “I’ll do some preparation for the piece before handing it over to a guest preparer [William Spaulding] to finish off,” explains Bell, who heads back to Scotland at the start of August to prepare the Edinburgh Festival Chorus.

Other behind-the-scenes developments this year include principal conductor Carlos Kalmar’s shining moment in his new role as artistic director. The Uruguayan maestro has a love for ambitious programs brimming with large-scale vocal works. That’s evident in his choice of Mahler’s moving masterpiece for two vocal soloists and orchestra, Das Lied von der Erde (Jul 1, 2), Verdi’s Requiem (Aug 19, 20) and Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2, “Lobgesang” (Fri 17, Sat 18). Also of note is Kalmar’s overview Latin Works for Orchestra (Jun 24, 25), which includes a rich showcase of pieces by Mexican conductor Carlos Chávez, Argentine Alberto Ginastera and influential Brazilian baton swinger Heitor Villa-Lobos.

This summer slate also features a roundup of some top conductors, most notably eminent Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, who leads the orchestra in his own Concerto Grosso No. 1 for Three Cellos and Orchestra (Jul 15, 16). Dynamic Finn Hannu Lintu steps to the podium July 29 and 30.

As festival ringleaders continue to hunt for a new executive director following last year’s abrupt departure of Elizabeth Hurley (now the Art Institute’s vice president for development), orchestra manager Leigh Levine holds the position on an interim basis. The New Zealander is particularly excited about the guest roster this year. “I can’t wait to see Alondra de la Parra conduct David Russell, one of the eminent classical guitarists of our time [Jul 8, 9],” she tells us. Levine’s also putting a big star on her calendar for Lintu’s special guests, the brother-sister vocal duo Ville and Johanna Rusanen, who belt Sibelius’s epic symphonic poem, Kullervo, Op. 7. A highlight from last season, composer George Fenton conducting a soundtrack to the wildlife documentary Planet Earth, won’t be repeated this year. But Levine has some good news. “George told us we could have Frozen Planet once he’s finished it,” she confides gleefully. “I’m going to hold him to that. Let’s hope it doesn’t take too long.”

Grant Park Music Festival begins this week and runs through August 19.

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