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August 15, 2011

The 'Book' was free, the payoff priceless

Millennium Park.gifIn small-town Iowa, where I grew up, a summer's Saturday meant packing up the blanket and a picnic basket for some free Sousa at the local bandshell, and an extra nickel for flavored ice. 

Since then I've witnessed amazing Shakespeare in New York's Central Park, holiday concerts at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and wonderful fringe festival fare the world over. But I was nevertheless amazed by what I heard, for free, at Chicago's Millennium Park this past weekend. 

The program -- Franz Schmidt's "The Book with Seven Seals" (Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln) -- was a connoisseur's dream, an evening-long 1937 rarity based on the biblical Book of Revelation for full chorus and orchestra, with virtuoso solo roles for an organist and five singers, one of them a Wagnerian heldentenor who must also be capable of nimble, Bach-like narrative. 

It was a titanic performance that seemed to fit the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, with its Frank Gehry stage framed by billowing stainless steel sails and an airy trellis of loudspeakers extending out over the lawn. To sit in this outdoor space with the clouds rolling above is to feel you're embarking on a space and time voyage, which the concert surely was. 

Schmidt (1874-1939) played cello in the Vienna Court Opera Orchestra under Gustav Mahler. He was well versed in the church music of Bach, the symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms, the operas of Strauss and Wagner. His 1937 choral-orchestral masterpiece could easily be mistaken, in certain passages, for a work written a hundred years earlier.

For its conservative style alone, Schmidt's "The Book with Seven Seals" would have probably missed the cut when it came to the works that would live for future generations. But Schmidt's music was also championed by the Nazis after the Austrian Anschluss and thereby heavily stigmatized. Few conductors outside of Austria came forward to champion Schmidt's music after the war, and as the years passed the growing reputations of Debussy, Bartok, Schoenberg, Berg and Stravinsky eclipsed Schmidt's accomplishment. 

Except, that is, in Austria, where two-thirds of the population is Catholic, choral societies abound and the great oratorios of Bach, Händel, Haydn, Schütz and Mozart are still prominent features of the musical calendar. Schmidt's gargantuan piece has fixed itself firmly in the rotation there. Grant Park Festival's Uruguayan-born artistic director Carlos Kalmar, who studied in Vienna, says he flipped out when he discovered it. 

Schmidt's portrayals of the four apocalyptic horsemen are grand exclamation points of cataclysmic outburst and spine-chilling creepiness. The quintet of Austrian soloists offered searing emotional clarity. Yet the sounds that are in my head as I write this are the gentle devotional counterpoints of the opening prologue and the great choruses of horror, woe and thankfulness that play out over the two-hour saga.

These free concerts in Millennium Park can be easily overlooked by cultural travelers. I also tend to treat free events lightly when I visit a major city. Even though I take pains to l
ine up my tickets and exhibit admissions well in advance, I figure the rest will take care of itself. Because of that casual approach, I nearly missed a performance of Bach's B Minor Mass at Notre Dame in Paris.

Millennium Park itself is a daytime mecca for summer visitors, with Anish Kapoor's silver bean, called "Cloud Gate," reflecting the skyline, and Jaume Plensa's "Crown Fountain," with its water spouts erupting from the puckered lips of giant video faces.  

But just so you don't miss the rest -- here's the agenda of the Grant Park Music Festival, as well as links to other Millennium Park free concerts of international jazz, new music Mondays, world music and experimental electronica, folk, rock and avant-garde mixes.

Bring your food and drink with you, or buy it on site. If you really want an assigned seat in the first few rows, you can buy a special pass for that here. But most of the pavilion seating, like the lawn beyond it, is free.

Jay Pritzker Pavilion, at upper right in photo, is the home of the Grant Park Music Festival in Chicago's Millennium Park. "Cloud Gate," popularly known as The Bean, sits nearby.
August 15, 2011 12:48 PM | | Comments (0)

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