Grant Park Music Festival to reopen with July 4th celebration

Wed May 05, 2021 at 12:01 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Paul Winberg is marking his tenth anniversary as president and CEO of the Grant Park Music Festival. Photo: Noel Morris

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Grant Park Music Festival was cancelled in 2020 for the first time in its nearly nine-decade history.

Fortunately, Chicago’s downtown music festival will return this summer—opening later, running a bit shorter, and somewhat downsized—but still bringing live classical music once again to audiences on Chicago’s lakefront.

The festival’s 87th season will be shortened from its usual ten-week run to eight weeks in a cost-saving move requested by the sponsoring City of Chicago. So rather than opening in mid-June as is traditional, this summer’s series will open on the Fourth of July weekend with artistic director and principal conductor Carlos Kalmar and chorus director Christopher Bell jointly leading a celebratory holiday program July 2-3.

“[The shortened season] definitely was budget driven but I think we’ve made the best out of it,” said Paul Winberg, the amiable, ever-optimistic president and CEO of the lakefront festival. 

“We wanted to make the season as attractive as possible to sort of welcome people back,” he added. “I actually think it’s fortuitous that we’re able to open the season with our Independence Day program.”

The 2021 music festival will be a transitional one as Chicago moves out of the Covid-19 pandemic, with safety and social distancing protocols observed onstage and in the audience.

Seating in the Pritzker Pavilion will be limited to 25% of capacity—though with rapidly changing developments that is almost certain to be updated by opening night. (On Tuesday Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she hopes to fully open the city by July 4 with no capacity limits.)

For the first time, reservations will be required for all audience members whether seated in the pavilion or on the lawn to allow physical distancing. 

The cautious return to orchestral concerts around the country is reflected in Grant Park’s programming as well with downsizing of the orchestra and major social distancing spread out across the vast Pritzker stage

“We needed to really think about how we could create a festival that truly still felt like an orchestral and choral festival and not have to reduce this down to a bunch of chamber concerts,” said Winberg. 

“We knew based on our calculations that we could get up to 63 musicians on the stage. And so we basically tried to figure out with that kind of limitation, what’s the scope of repertoire that we could produce?”

So while there are no Mahler or Bruckner symphonies on tap this summer, the festival will serve up its usual mix of populist works, rarities and short pieces by young—and this year, markedly more diverse—-composers.

There will be a single world premiere this summer. Jessie Montgomery, incoming composer in residence of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, will have her viola concerto, The L.E.S. Characters, debut July 16-17. Masumi Per Rostad, former member of the Pacifica Quartet will be the soloist.

Bruckner will be represented on the choral side. The superb Grant Park Chorus will be featured prominently—albeit also in a slenderized ensemble of 20-36 singers depending on the work—and those programs offer some of the most intriguing repertoire of the summer.

Choral works on tap this summer include Vivaldi’s Gloria (July 9-10); Haydn’s “Nicolai Mass” (July 14); Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb and Schubert’s Mass in G major (August 18); Handel’s epic “Dettingen” Te Deum (August 20-21); and Bruckner’s Mass No. 2, Lili Boulanger’s Psalm 21, and Jonathan Dove’s The Passing of the Year (all on July 21).   

Carlos Kalmar conducts the majority of classical concerts this summer. Eun Sun Kim will make her festival debut July 23-24—one week before the Korean conductor takes up her new post as music director of San Francisco Opera.

Other soloists on tap are violinists Vadim Gluzman (Mozart Concerto No. 3, August 20-21) and Augustin Hadelich (Sibelius, August 6-7); pianists Joyce Yang (Grieg, July 7) and Natasha Paremski (Shostakovich First, July 23-24); flutist Anthony Trionfo (Mercadante, July 28) and duo-pianists Ashley Kim and Colin Song (Saint-Saëns, August 11).

Winberg concedes that the programming may be more skewed toward the familiar than the venturesome festival is usually known for. But coming after a two-year layoff and with a new stage configuration for musicians to acclimate themselves to, he wanted to make the return easier for the musicians as well.

“There are some practicalities in this,” said Winberg. There was a conscious effort to leave enough time for the musicians to get used to the new stage setup rather than “having to worry about the notes.” “It’s going to be radically different for them but we hope everyone will eventually fall into the groove.”

The season repertoire will also include Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1,  Rossini’s William Tell Overture, Brahms’ Symphony No. 3, Sibelius’s Symphony No. 5, Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 2, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 “Winter Dreams.”

Christopher Bell will direct a choral concert of Irish music on August 4 and the Broadway program will be led by Lawrence Loh August 13 and 14.

Now in his tenth season managing the lakefront festival, Winberg views the July festival reopening after a two-year hiatus with a characteristic combination of relief and excitement.

“I’m thrilled that we’re going to be one of the first out of the gate to be reactivating Millennium Park live music with live audiences,” he said.

“I also feel really fortunate that we will be part of supporting this renaissance of the city, post-pandemic. I’m optimistic that the work that we’re doing will help bring people back in the city and feel safe about being here again.”

The Grant Park Music Festival opens July 2 and runs through August 21. 

Reservations will be required for all patrons whether in the pavilion or on the lawn. Free passes for the Independence Day Salute on July 2-3 will be available at 10 a.m. June 30. Free passes for other festival concerts in the Pritzker Pavilion will be available at 10 a.m. on the Monday before each event. 

Concertgoers can select seats in the Seating Bowl or reserve a socially distanced “pod” (squares painted on the grass) for 2-6 people on the Great Lawn. Passes can be obtained at or by calling 312-742-7647. Passes will be touch-free, issued as a barcode to be printed at home or displayed on a smartphone. 

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