Grant Park Music Festival will return with fresh (and free) sounds this summer

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Carlos Kalmar, principal conductor and artistic director of the Grant Park Music Festival, at Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Given the frigid weather that has held Chicago in its thrall recently, a giant leap of faith might be needed when contemplating a future of sultry summer nights. But there could be no better harbinger of balmy evenings to come than the announcement of the 2018 season lineup for Chicago’s Grant Park Music Festival, the 30-concert extravaganza that will run June 13-Aug. 18 in Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion and several other venues throughout the city.

This season’s planned schedule also serves as a fine reminder of how Carlos Kalmar, the festival’s veteran artistic director and principal conductor, devises imaginative, ear-opening programs that mix and match rarely heard treasures, new works and familiar classics, while also spotlighting world-class soloists and the formidable sounds of the festival’s orchestra (led by Kalmar and several other conductors) and chorus (under the direction of Christopher Bell).

Of course, one of the most alluring things about the festival is that it is free and open to the public, with seats in the Seating Bowl and on the Great Lawn available on a first-come, first-served basis. Also free are the fascinating orchestra and chorus rehearsals generally held between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m on Tuesdays through Fridays (June 12-Aug. 17). Paid memberships, available Tuesday and starting at $96, include reserved access for every concert, along with many other benefits, and several other plans also are available.

The Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, site of the Grant Park Music Festival. | Provided Photo

The Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, site of the Grant Park Music Festival. | Provided Photo

Among this summer’s highlights will be a world premiere commission for orchestra and chorus by Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds. The still untitled work, to be conducted by Kalmar, will debut June 20, and will coincide with the opening night of the 2018 annual conference of Chorus America (a national advocacy group for the choral music field, co-hosted by the festival and the Chicago Children’s Choir.)

“Ēriks is one of the most popular composers for a cappella chorus,” said Kalmar. “I first met him at a concert in Portland [where Kalmar is music director of the Oregon Symphony]. We talked afterward, I told him I was commissioning a piece for chorus and orchestra, and I gave him some basic parameters like the length, and the importance that it should be a celebration for chorus, not a requiem. I also reminded him it would be performed in an outdoor space in a big, noisy city, so it would be best for him to draw on his dramatic side rather than his ethereal side. And I told him his piece would be on a program alongside works by Brahms, Messiaen and Leonard Bernstein. Then I just said ‘Go!’ We will meet again for the first time in February.”

William Hagen | Provided photo

William Hagen | Provided photo

Among the veteran soloists this summer will be acclaimed pianist Natasha Paremski in Rachmaninov’s “Piano Concerto No. 3,” the widely admired cellist Johannes Moser in Dvořák’s “Cello Concerto” and the superb pianist Kirill Gerstein, in Liszt’s “Piano Concerto No. 2.” But many of the masterworks to be performed will feature stellar young artists as part of the City of Chicago’s Year of Creative Youth celebration. For example, Mozart’s “Violin Concerto” will feature 24-year-old violinist William Hagen, who served as Kalmar’s concert master while he was working with the Colburn Conservatory of Music in Los Angeles.

As Kalmar recalled: “He played a different Mozart concerto for me and I just said, ‘Aha!’ In the case of George Li, the soloist for Chopin’s ‘Piano Concerto No. 1,’ he was just 12 years old when we first met years ago and he came for advice. I wanted to see what would happen as he went through adolescence, and now he is 22 and terrific. Adam Walker, in his 20s, is principal flute with the London Symphony Orchestra. I heard him play the heck out of Nielsen’s ‘Flute Concerto,’ which he’ll also perform in the festival. Prokofiev’s ‘Sinfonia Concertante’ will feature 25-year-old Spanish cellist Pablo Ferrández.”

To celebrate the 80th birthday of the Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer William Bolcom, Kalmar has invited Dennis Russell Davies, a frequent collaborator of the composer, to lead Bolcom’s “Symphony No. 4” and “Symphony No. 5: Machine” — works Kalmar described as “high-energy, intense, complex, and sometimes quite dark.” In a nod to the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth, Kalmar will conduct the composer’s “Chichester Psalms,” which he called “one of his greatest choral/orchestral works, with great depth of character, and all the long melodies, dance-like rhythms and huge energy you expect with Bernstein, plus a very calm, minimal, meaningful section.”

Also scheduled are symphonies by Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Ralph Vaughan Williams; Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Old Maid and the Thief”; Antonin Dvořák’s “Water Goblin”; William Walton’s rarely performed choral masterpiece “Belshazzar’s Feast” and Carl Orff’s richly theatrical “Carmina Burana.” The Independence Day Salute will highlight George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” with 16-year-old pianist Emily Bear as soloist. The annual Broadway tribute will celebrate Lerner and Loewe.

For a complete schedule, call (312) 742-7647 or visit www.gpmf.org.

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