Carlos Kalmar looks back on 25 years leading the Grant Park Music Festival

June 12, 2024
Carlos Kalmar will open the Grant Park Music Festival Wednesday night, the conductor’s final season leading the lakefront series. Photo: GPMF

This summer will mark the 90th anniversary of the Grant Park Music Festival. The lakefront summer series that has brought classical music to Chicago audiences for nearly a century will open Wednesday night with a typically bracing mix of works by Britten, Dvořák, and Anna Clyne.

Yet for many, this summer will be a bittersweet one, as it will also be the 25th and final season for Carlos Kalmar—artistic director, principal conductor and guiding light of the festival for the past quarter-century. 

“I’m looking forward to . . . well, to my last season,” said Kalmar sounding wistful, speaking from his home in Shaker Heights, Ohio. “Of course, I’m depressed [about it]. Why should I lie?”

“But having said that, it’s time. Come on. A quarter of a century?”

When his final season was announced three years ago, the conductor pointedly noted that it was not his decision to step down from his Grant Park post. He now says that “in a way, it was a joint decision.”

“A friend of mine in the business said that there are usually three reactions when a conductor leaves a job after a long tenure. One is ‘Oh my God!’ The next one is ‘It’s about time.’ And the third one is silence. And of course I would prefer to get more of the first reaction than the second or third.” 

“One has to realize when it’s time to leave,” he added philosophically. “It’s similar to the situation in Oregon [with the Oregon Symphony]. Bur leaving Chicago is going to be harder for me [due to the] longer tenure.”

“But of course, the Grant Park Music Festival is large. It’s very big and it requires a lot of–in my mind—presence. And I think 25 years is a very, very good run.”

Carlos Kalmar conducted the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus in Dvořák’s Stabat Mater in June of 2023. Photo: Norman Timonera

Few conductors in Chicago have had the kind of transformative impact on the organizations they have led that Kalmar has at Grant Park. The series has always been forward-looking musically from its earliest days. But Kalmar—along with his colleague, Grant Park Chorus director Christopher Bell—have taken the festival’s adventurous spirit to new heights over the past two-and-one-half decades.

One way is with a focused dedication to new music. Nearly every Grant Park season under Kalmar has presented at least one commissioned world premiere. This summer will be no different with new works debuting by James Stephenson and Natalie Joachim.

And while the series has always presented favorite symphonies and concertos of Brahms, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and others, Kalmar has maintained a firm and consistent commitment to music of American composers of the past as well as the present—a rarity in Chicago where American music invariably means familiar populist hits by Gershwin and Bernstein. Kalmar has presented music from Edward MacDowell to John Adams and a remarkable array of neglected symphonies by Walter Piston, Roy Harris, George Antheil, Randall Thompson, William Grant Still, William Dawson and others.

“We have tried to give the festival a certain cultural identity,” said Kalmar. “This is what we stand for. And I think that is something we were successful at.”

“You get the warhorses, you get Beethoven 5, all of which I love and adore. But you also get the pieces that nobody else will ever touch.”  

Indeed, along with the commitment to homegrown music, Kalmar and Bell have cornered the market on providing Chicago audiences with an audacious array of rarities for chorus and orchestra. These have ranged from Handel’s “Dettingen” Te Deum, Vaughan Williams’s Dona nobis pacem and Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius and The Kingdom to such intriguing obscurities as Frank Martin’s In terra pax, Frederick Delius’s A Mass of Life, Bohuslav Martinů’s The Epic of Gilgamesh, and Shostakovich’s Song of the Forests.

The exhumation of neglected choral repertoire continues this opening weekend with Gustav Holst’s The Cloud Messenger—a work so rarely done that even Christopher Bell, a musician steeped in English choral music, didn’t know about it, says Kalmar with a chuckle.

“It’s a very good piece,” he says. “It’s romantic, it’s big—you’ll hear some things from The Planets.”

I think that Gustav Holst is a bit underrated. We only play one piece and and that’s it; we really need too take another look at him.”

Carlson Kalmar led performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 at the Harris Theater in 2022.

In addition to the dizzyingly vast range of repertoire he has led, the Uruguayan-born Austrian conductor is one of those rare musicians who almost never seems to have a bad night. A Kalmar concert is invariably well prepared on minimal rehearsal time and directed with fire, intelligence and conviction.

To say that Kalmar leaves big shoes to fill is an understatement. Yet the conductor says choosing a successor “is not my call.”

“As you can imagine, I have nothing whatsoever to do with who is going to replace me,” said Kalmar. “I follow the same policy I did in Oregon—even more so. Which is, “You guys figure it out.”

Kalmar noted approvingly the decision of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to follow the octogenarian Riccardo Muti with the 28-year old Klaus Mäkelä (31 when he takes the reins in 2027). “It’s going in a very different direction. And I think that is good. And I think with replacing myself, same deal.” 

Grant Park management has been notably close-mouthed about successors to Kalmar, saying nothing about a timetable, much less individuals. 

Still, even the casual observer can see that there are three guest conductors this summer slated to lead multiple concerts, which appears to look very much like a short list: Ludovic Morlot, Giancarlo Guerrero and Eric Jacobson.

“I have no favorite,” said Kalmar. “I think everybody brings something to the table. Giancarlo is younger than I am but not that much younger. If you want to go for a younger guy you go for an Eric Jacobson. But what do I know?”

“I do not even know who is on the committee. I have no knowledge. None. I want to stay far away.”

“Whoever is, they will figure it out because they know what they are doing.”

Carlos Kalmar with violinist Vadim Gluzman in the Covid season of 2021. Photo: Patrick Pyszka

Kalmar’s final season will also feature several collaborations with some of his favorite musicians as concerto soloists this summer, including Garrick Ohlsson and Vadim Gluzman. Two of his “really good friends” will be in the spotlight opening week, with cellist Alban Gerhardt and violinist Christian Tetzlaff, performing the Dvořák and Elgar concertos, respectively.

Characteristically, Kalmar’s final program in August will offer a belated festival premiere: Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, the mighty “Symphony of a Thousand,” which will make a near-complete Mahler cycle over Kalmar’s 25-year tenure. (The Third Symphony is the only major Mahler work Kalmar has not conducted at the festival.)

“The story of coming to Mahler Eight was, to some extent, a bit painful,” said Kalmar. “I struggled so much with what [music] am I going to do at the end? I was very sure I knew the piece I wanted to end my tenure with. And it was not Mahler Eight,” he said laughing. “It was Haydn—The Seasons.”

And then I thought: ‘When you have a chorus like this and an orchestra like this, and you know a bunch of singers that can actually sing it—why not? The casting I put together is a little more on the lyrical side. I think they will work well. I’m really excited about that.”

Asked about specific nights or performances that stand out in his mind, Kalmar said there were too many to mention. 

“The first year I was there was a concert with Kathy Battle. Of course that was special. The fact that I did so much American music means for me a lot. Both Brahms Requiems we did were very special because the piece means something.”

Carlos Kalmar conducting the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus in 2022. Photo: Charles Osgood

Yet his collaborations with Christopher Bell and the talented singers of the Grant Park Chorus tend to stand out most in his mind.

“Probably some of my favorite concerts were with the chorus. The Epic of Gilgamesh might be one of them. I remember also a Beethoven Pastoral symphony when it really did rain heavily, perfectly timed for the storm of the fourth movement. Except the rain didn’t stop for the finale,” he said with a laugh.

He recalls an occasion when the inescapable downtown sonic din of traffic and sirens actually enhanced a performance.

“There was one time when the street noise really helped. We did the great John Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls” (a work written in memoriam to the victims of the 9-11 terrorist attacks). “It ends with the sounds of the city, and the traffic noise and sirens were just the right distance and perfect!”

More than anything else, Kalmar says he feels immense gratitude for his 25-year tenure leading the Grant Park Orchestra and Grant Park Chorus and for the festival’s dedicated and open-minded audiences.

“I have been blessed by being surrounded by so many fabulous, talented musicians. I love this orchestra. They’re great and I love this chorus.”

“One of my favorite things to do is after the concert is over and I’ve changed and gotten dressed. I go and I walk up the ramp and look to my left at the grass of Grant Park and there the audience is—still camped, still savoring that moment that we all just had together. I loved that.”

“Some of you came because you knew the festival. Some of you came because there was one piece that you wanted to hear or some of you just came. And all of you were just in awe of what you just heard. And that’s why we do it.”

Carlos Kalmar opens the 90th season of the Grant Park Music Festival 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Millennium Park. The program includes Anna Clyne’s Masquerade, Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and Dvořák’s Cello Concerto with Alban Gerhardt.

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