Grant Park Music Festival is FREE!
There was the most wonderful orchestra concert outdoors last night! It was the Grant Park Orchestra: a world class professional symphony orchestra at Millennium Park, downtown at Pritzker Pavilion, with 3 interesting pieces: one, a new American piece called Supermaximum, next a violin concerto with an exciting, passionate violin soloist, and finally a suite of 6 shorter pieces called The Red Pony, music you might have heard as the soundtrack to a western. And the best news might be that it was and is always FREE! In fact this orchestra, the Grant Park Symphony typically plays 3 concerts a week, generally Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evenings all summer, from June 14 to August 19 this year!
The Grant Park Music Festival (GPMF) has been giving free concerts every summer since 1935 and in 1944 the Chicago Park District formed the Grant Park Orchestra. For 10 weeks every summer a unique collaboration between the Chicago Park District, the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events and the Grant Park Orchestral Association produces free world class concerts by the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus. This festival is unique in the U.S. for being available to people without payment. But the best, upfront seats are ticketed, and donors to the orchestra who sit there are rewarded for their generosity to the orchestra by getting to sit up close. But most of the concertgoers sit further back for free, either in the provided seats or sitting on folding chairs on the vast lawn or on a blanket with a picnic dinner. It’s a wonderful atmosphere, as the sun is descending over the Chicago skyline, to sit in the park and hear and see great performances.
But back to the music. There is an excellent sound system and speakers set up all over above the lawn so everyone can hear well, even if far away on the grass. The orchestra, chorus and soloists are well mic’d and levels are controlled by a professional. It’s like Ravinia in the heart of the city.
The first piece last night, Supermaximum, by Kenji Bunch, evokes actual “chain-gang songs from the prison camps of the Depression-era South. The inmates used these highly original songs not only to raise their spirits, but also simply to control and synchronize the tempo of their work” – quoted from program notes by the composer. The word, supermaximum, refers to the highest level of prison security. Bunch wrote it in 2011 and it was first performed the same year.
It starts with soft percussion noises and then the players rhythmically stomping their feet together at times before the melody starts in one of the most plaintive of string instruments, the violas. But in still more unusual sounds before the melody starts, all the string players slap their strings together rhythmically evoking the sounds of men working together in hard, menial labor without talking. Then when the melody starts in the violas, later taken up by each section of the orchestra, the rhythmic noises continue beneath the determined, minor key tune. At one of the climactic moments of the piece, the drums and the entire remainder of the orchestra take turns evoking the sounds of perhaps the taskmaster whipping the inmates to work harder or faster. From there on to the end there is a steady, dramatic buildup louder than before to a sobering, moving portrayal of the defiant, determined inmates to sing their own tune, nonetheless.
Undoubtedly the star performer of the evening was solo violinist Angelo Xiang Yu. Born in Inner Mongolia, Angelo received his early training in Shanghai before receiving advanced degrees from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. He must have worked very hard in school to be able to soar and play the fabulous and beautiful Saint-Saëns Violin Concerto No.3 so excitingly. This violin part is very demanding of the soloist and actually requires a virtuoso: someone who is beyond just good but is truly virtuous in how well and thrillingly he plays that most human and emotionally evocative instrument, the violin.
This Saint-Saëns concerto starts out dramatic, in a minor key solo with almost no introduction. But fairly soon more touching melodies come out of both the violin and the orchestra. But by the end of the 1st movement the dramatic minor key mood is back and dominates. The 2nd movement is more thoughtful and positive in tone, not so dramatic, using the parallel major key. The violin gets to sing and almost tell a story, and then the oboe in the orchestra gets the lovely tune. Toward the end of the movement the violinist plays using fingered harmonics, which produce a whistling quality of sound 2 octaves higher than usual. This technique just adds to the thoughtful, ethereal quality, providing a quiet ending for the movement.
This reviewer’s favorite part is the 3rd and last movement, where the music goes back to a dramatic and minor key but with much more rhythmic energy. But first there is a bit of a transitional cadenza where the violin leads us on to something new, we know not what. Building tension, it is soon brought to the final, exultant major theme, a still very rhythmic tune which leads us expectantly all the way to the end of the concerto. But surprisingly, inserted in the middle of the movement before the end is a soft, heavenly theme evocative of prayer. Then the scary drama returns to end the piece with excitement and satisfaction.
The Red Pony
This final work on the program was written by Aaron Copland, called the Dean of American composers. Copland had the unusual gift of writing music both serious and popular at the same time. He wrote The Red Pony originally as music for a film made in 1948 called The Red Pony, taken from the book and screenplay written by John Steinbeck. The Red Pony Suite, 6 short movements taken from the movie score and arranged by Copland, sounds like music for an old western – cowboy songs, though not country music as we think of it today.
It tells a story. The story of a ten-year-old boy named Jody, and his life growing up on a ranch in California, is not about gunmen and Indians. It’s about daily life on a ranch for a kid and how much the surprise gift of a red pony from his father sets him free for great adventures, at least in his imagination.
Jody first day-dreams about himself leading an army of knights, and then as the whip-cracking ringmaster of a circus. One movement portrays Jody’s grandfather telling the story (in music) of when “he led a wagon train clear across the plains to the coast.” And the final movement ends the story with the title “Happy Ending.”
Three free weekly Grant Park Music Festival concerts continue this summer through August 19.
Concerts are usually held at the Pritizker Pavillion of Millennium Park
For more information and schedule and program details visit the Grant Park Music Festival website.