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Carlos Kalmar, fervent spirit behind city’s music-filled summer nights

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

It is a truth universally acknowledged that one of the finest ways to spend a warm summer evening in Chicago is to head to the Grant Park Music Festival, find a seat or a spot on the great lawn in front of Frank Gehry’s stunning Jay Pritzker Pavilion, and settle in for a concert of (mostly) classical music performed by a stellar orchestra, a grand chorus and a wide range of soloists.

Best of all is that these concerts – primarily led by Carlos Kalmar, who has been principal conductor of the Festival since 2000, and was named its artistic director in 2011 – are totally free of charge. And while 1,800 of the 4,000 seats in the pavilion are set aside for sale as memberships (a crucial source of revenue that accounts for about $1 million of the festival’s annual $6 million budget), the park can accommodate a total of 10,000 patrons, and on many nights exceeds capacity. This year’s festival runs June 14 through Aug. 19.

Conductor Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra rehearse Tchaikovsky’s “Violin Concerto in D Major” at the Pritzker Pavilion on Tuesday, June 13, 2017. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

A man who happily proclaims his summertime job with Grant Park “is to die for” (since 2003 he also has served as music director of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra), Kalmar quickly enumerated the reasons for his passion during a recent backstage chat.

“To begin with, there is the city of Chicago, which I love,” said the conductor. “Then there is the architecture of our ‘hall’ — a great work of art by Frank Gehry. We also have one of the best acoustic systems imaginable. And of course there are the extraordinary musicians [approximately 80 in the orchestra, varying with the program], with about 25 percent from the Lyric, and the rest freelancers from everywhere in the world. Beyond all that, there is the immense freedom I have to shape each season.”

Kalmar also is fervent about his mission, which he sees in terms of both the festival’s social purpose and its artistic goals.

“In many ways the social purpose is the most important,” he said. “To be in this astounding park, and be able to give the city a free, 10-week-long festival, with three concerts and two different programs per week, is a great gift. Its impact on society should be recognized, and every effort should be made to keep it alive and strong in this form, with the support of politicians and donors and audiences. I know every big city must support many valuable things, but I’m responsible for this piece of the puzzle, and I want this festival to be there for the people of Chicago for a long time to come.”

“On the artistic side, the festival is different from many others in this country,” said Kalmar. “Great freedom comes with not having to sell tickets, as my colleagues at the CSO and Lyric must do. But with this freedom comes a very lengthy and difficult thought process each year in order to offer something that will interest each taste.”

So, along with the “warhorses” by Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky (and less familiar pieces by these masters), this season will feature works by Britten, Copland, Kodaly, Rimsky-Korsakov and others, plus a world-premiere commission, “Horn Concerto” (Aug. 11 and 12) by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Aaron Jay Kernis (with Jonathan Boen, horn).

“I just have a special affection for pieces that are not so mainstream,” Kalmar said.

Kalmar, the son of Viennese immigrants of Jewish heritage who fled Austria in 1938, was born in Uruguay in 1958 and began studying violin at age six. His family returned to Europe when he was 15 so that he “could get the kind of musical education not available there,” and he spent a good portion of his life in Vienna, where his two grown daughters from his first marriage live. He now calls Portland home and is the father of two young sons – two-and-a-half and six months old – with his second wife.

That might be one reason Kalmar is all in favor of the relaxed, non-elitist, family-friendly atmosphere of the festival’s outdoor concerts, “where you see people in shorts hauling their coolers.”

“But I still think concert halls call for a better standard of dress,” said the conductor.

There also will be a slew of special events this season: “Broadway Romance” (July 21 and 22), a program for orchestra and chorus led by guest conductor Ted Sperling and chorus director Christopher Bell, with Broadway performers Laura Osnes and Santino Fontana; “An Evening with Mariachi Cobre”(Aug. 9), with Kalmar conducting the orchestra and joined by the legendary Florida-based mariachi band; Puerto Rican-American composer Roberto Sierra’s “Missa Latina” (June 28 and 30), a massive orchestral and choral work led by guest conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya, with soprano Jessica Rivera and baritone Takaoki Onishi. 

Note: Also free and open to the public are the orchestra and chorus rehearsals that generally take place Tuesdays through Fridays between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.

For a complete festival schedule visit www.gpmf.org.