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Grant Park Music Festival kicks off the return of in-person downtown music fests

The Grant Park Music Festival returned to the Pritzker Pavilion Friday night, the first time in more than a year, with a live audience and no pandemic restrictions.

Concertgoers gather on the Great Lawn at the Pritzker Pavilion to enjoy music during the Grant Park Music Festival’s 2021 opening night at Millennium Park, on Friday.
Concertgoers gather on the Great Lawn at the Pritzker Pavilion to enjoy music during the Grant Park Music Festival’s 2021 opening night at Millennium Park, on Friday.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The Grant Park Music Festival returned with outdoor, live classical music concerts — at full seating capacity without social distancing — Friday night in Millennium Park. Droves of concertgoers entered the festival for the “Independence Day Salute” program, with artistic director and principal conductor Carlos Kalmar returning to lead the Grant Park Orchestra at the Pritzker Pavilion.

“I feel free. I’ve been in the house way too long, so I’m pretty excited for what’s to come,” first-time attendee Cierra Turner, 25, said, looking forward to one of her favorite Tchaikovsky pieces being played, the “1812 Overture.”

Coincidentally, the festival was established in 1935 to lift people’s spirits and bring people together through cultural arts during the Great Depression. Eighty-six years later, that same feeling of hope and togetherness reemerged as music fans returned to the Jay Pritzker Pavilion for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down all large-scale gatherings, indoors or out, more than a year ago.

Concertgoers listen to the Grant Park Orchestra performing at the Pritzker Pavilion during the Grant Park Music Festival at Millennium Park, Friday night.
Concertgoers listen to the Grant Park Orchestra performing at the Pritzker Pavilion during the Grant Park Music Festival at Millennium Park on Friday night.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

“On many levels, this is a really symbolic moment, both for the city and for the performing arts here in Chicago,” Paul Winberg, president and CEO of the Grant Park Music Festival, said. “And we’re really proud to be the first group out there, at least here in Millennium Park on the Pritzker stage.”

Ethan Valentin and Grisel Medina, both 25, returned to the festival Friday excited to find a getaway in a familiar setting, as they went on their first date at the park seven years ago.

Elsewhere in the expansive lawn seating area, charcuterie boards, picnic tables and bottles of wine spread out across the area as patrons prepared for an evening of classical music under the stars.

“When the festival was canceled last year it was such a disappointment — understandably they had to, because of COVID — but we were wondering if it was ever going to reopen,” Chicago resident Michael Pylypczha said. “It’s just a great feeling that we’re finally going to be able to attend this concert. It doesn’t make any difference who’s out on stage or what’s playing. It’s always an enjoyable experience in the evening.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and first lady Amy Eshleman also were on hand for the opening night concert. The mayor took to the stage, offering some welcoming remarks to the assembled crowd.

The festival runs for eight weeks, featuring free concerts on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 6:30 p.m. The park opening at 5 p.m. Concerts last 90 minutes, without intermission. Seating is first-come, first-serve. Visit grantparkmusicfestival.com.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her wife Amy Eshleman take in the opening night of the 2021 Grant Park Music Festival at the Pritzker Pavilion on Friday night.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her wife Amy Eshleman take in the opening night of the 2021 Grant Park Music Festival at the Pritzker Pavilion on Friday night.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times