Grant Park Festival’s massive Jumbotron upstages the music

Thu Aug 15, 2019 at 3:00 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Over the course of Chicago’s 186-year history there may have been worse ideas than installing a gargantuan screen over the stage of the Pritzker Pavilion to display a simultaneous relay of the evening’s Grant Park Orchestra performance.

Say, like Mrs. O’Leary leaving a burning lantern in her barn on De Koven Street.

If not quite as economically or structurally devastating as the Chicago Fire, from a musical perspective the festival’s massive Jumbotron, deployed at Wednesday night’s concert, proved nearly as damaging.

Clearly the inspiration is the Ravinia Festival where classical performances have been accompanied by HD screens for nearly a decade. But even Ravinia’s distracting screens, smaller and placed on either side of the pavilion, seem understated next to Grant Park’s massive 40-by-22.5- foot IMAX experience.

The “Festival HD Series”—sponsored by BMO Harris Bank and promised to be “a multimedia experience like no other” — received widespread criticism after its debut at the Grant Park Music Festival’s season-opening concert in June. Most of the jibes and complaints were due to inept timing and underrehearsed direction, with the cameras only infrequently focusing on the right players at the right time.

The direction for Wednesday night’s concert of orchestral showpieces was better rehearsed and a clear improvement on an execution level. The issue is not technical or directorial competence but why a massive simultaneous live video needs to be hanging over the musicians on the Pritzker Pavilion stage at all.

Some may find that the additional visual details improve the concert experience. I believe this MTV-ification is a huge distraction and marks another visually centered, lowest common denominator dumbing-down of the classical concert experience. 

I feel the same way about the screens at Ravinia but this is much, much worse. At Ravinia, at least you can will yourself—with difficulty—not to watch the side screens and just concentrate on the live players and the music. The Pritzker screen is so humongous that it is inescapable. The vast scale and retina-searing brightness wind up dwarfing the live performers, reducing conductor Carlos Kalmar and the orchestra musicians to Lilliputian irrelevancies.

A case can be made for putting a judiciously scaled screen or two on Millennium Park’s Great Lawn where most picnickers can see very little of the performers on the Pritzker stage. But the HD Screen creates an unwonted and unnecessary intermediary between the audience and the musical performance. It makes pavilion attendees unwilling participants in a massive simulcast that pushes the actual live performers offstage.

Imagine if the Art Institute had installed a mime at the Manet Exhibit, where he would accompany patrons to each painting and make frenzied movements and gestures to tell us what each work really meant.

Perhaps there are some people who feel the projections enhance the concert experience. But since opening night this summer I’ve heard largely critical comments from festival regulars, including some who say they will refuse to attend any future Grant Park Orchestra concerts with the Jumbotron deployed. Count me among them.

The decidedly short program—just 51 minutes of music—led off with the festival premiere of Amy Beach’s Variations on Balkan Themes. Originally written for piano, the American composer began transcribing the work for orchestra but never completed it. The Balkan Variations was heard Wednesday in a 1999 arrangement by Hector Valdivia, who was in attendance.    

One can understand why Beach never finished her version for larger forces. The music is so inherently pianistic that it doesn’t really lend itself to an orchestral revamp. Further, the development and variations of the themes are not all that compelling and, at 20 minutes, interest flags long before the Balkan Variations comes to its conclusion.

Valdivia’s retooling is skillful enough and Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra musicians provided their usual commitment and vitality. But one can’t say this is one of Amy Beach’s most convincing works, at least in orchestral guise. Her Symphony No. 1 “Gaelic” shows her talents to better advantage and would be ideal fare for a future festival program.

The evening’s centerpiece provided the most rewards with the Suite from Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera, The Tale of Tsar Saltan. Most of the Russian composer’s fifteen operas remain obscurities in the U.S., and even the Suite from Tsar Saltan is rarely heard in concert. The sole familiar item from the opera—oddly not included by the composer in his suite— is the once-ubiquitous “Flight of the Bumblebee,” a mainstay of 20th-century pops programs.

The fantastical scenario involves a beautiful princess, a Lohengrin-esque swan with magical powers and “a whistling squirrel that extract emeralds from nuts.” Bizarre as the plot elements are, the music is glorious, richly melodic and scored with Rimsky’s characteristic brilliance and panache.

Kalmar led a performance that drew out the kaleidoscopic hues and martial swagger, with majestic richness in the Introduction to Act II, a wry and quicksilver rendition of the (interpolated) “Flight of the Bumblebee,” and sumptuous playing in the closing section.

The Grant Park front-desk musicians made the most of their spotlit solo moments, with especially first-class contributions by flutist Mary Stolper, clarinetist Dario Brignoli, and trumpeters David Gordon and colleagues in the repeated iterations of the Tsar’s regal fanfare.

The evening concluded with Morton Gould’s Cowboy Rhapsody. One might think that Gould’s medley of Western odes was conceived as a knockoff of Aaron Copland’s Rodeo (heard at the festival last month), since it utilizes many of the same songs. But Gould’s Cowboy Rhapsody came first—in 1940, originally for wind band—with Copland’s ballet following in 1942.

Gould may have gotten there first but Cowboy Rhapsody seems decidedly slight next to Rodeo. Gould’s confection doesn’t rise above a well-crafted medley of cowboy tunes, and the two works illume the difference between facile talent and musical genius. Still, the Grant Park players delivered a lively rendition under Kalmar’s direction that proved enjoyable. The Jumbotron’s visual accompaniment of photos of cowboys on the Western plains, not so much.

The Grant Park Music Festival concludes its season this weekend with Mahler’s Symphony No. 2,  presented 6:30 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Pritzker Pavilion.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Grant Park Festival’s massive Jumbotron upstages the music”

  1. Posted Aug 16, 2019 at 12:10 pm by Brandon R Barton

    I can understand the overwhelming distraction of the screen from the seats, but I think you have to consider the impact on the majority of the crowd that cannot see the orchestra at all (a major downside of the current setup).

    I thought Wednesday night’s concert was pleasantly enhanced by the projections, particularly in trying to focus on the new works I had not heard and were oftentimes too quiet to be projected over the voices of the 80% of people who are only there to jabber with friends and not listen. I felt more connected to the orchestra with the improved visuals, and I could focus better.

    If I were a seat-sitter I agree it would be better not to have the screen overhead. Maybe BMO-sponsored geniuses could make side screens or screens further back for the crowd that can’t see a thing (or barely hear a thing sometimes due to the sheer noise of the babbling masses).

  2. Posted Aug 16, 2019 at 4:02 pm by Jim Mosley

    We loved the Jumbotron. It was great to see the conductor Kalmar’s facial expressions to the orchestra especially right before flight of the bumblebee. Most people cannot see the individual muscians close up and especially as close as the cameraman was able to focus.

    I think for many people attending the lawn who may not be all that familiar with classical music this was a great visual tool. This is a summer music outdoor stage not orchestra hall. People are there not only to enjoy the music but also enjoy picnics after work with friends and family.

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