The Grant Park Music Festival in Chicago is the only free outdoor classical music series of its type in the United States. Each summer, the festival presents a whole ten weeks of classical concerts in ‘Chicago’s front yard’ at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, its home since 2004. Concerts take place every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from mid-June to mid-August.

Grant Park's Pritzker Pavilion © Christopher Neseman
Grant Park's Pritzker Pavilion
© Christopher Neseman
The festival has a long and distinguished history. It started back in the 1930s as a response to the Great Depression to try and lift the spirits of Chicago’s residents. By 1935, it had already become a staple part of Grant Park’s cultural life. Originally, a string of visiting orchestras performed for Chicago audiences, but in 1944 the Grant Park Orchestra was formed under conductor Nikolai Malko. Carlos Kalmar is the orchestra’s current principal conductor and artistic director. Kalmar is also music director at the Oregon Symphony.

Today, the orchestra draws its members from a number of great American ensembles, including the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Pittsburgh and Seattle Symphony Orchestras. Notable principal conductors in its history include Leonard Slatkin (who returns this season) and David Zinman.

Great musicians have performed alongside the Grant Park Orchestra, including Jascha Heifetz, Leonard Bernstein, Mario Lanza and Alfred Brendel. In 1939, 300,000 people attended the concert given by Lily Pons – a record crowd. That fine tradition continues this year, with appearances by bass-baritone Eric Owens, violinist Gil Shaham and British pianist Stephen Hough on the programme.

Grant Park offers fantastic opportunities to hear classical music for free! The public can attend open rehearsals and there is free seating on the lawn open to visitors 90 minutes before the concert’s scheduled start time – no tickets are required. Concerts are rarely cancelled for bad weather, so check the forecast before you set out. If you want to sit closer to the stage, tickets are available at a cost of around $25 – still a remarkable bargain. Picnics are actively encouraged; in fact, there is even a picnic contest on 19th July where visitors are challenged to theme their picnic on Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony!

Carlos Kalmar conducting © Patrick Pyszka
Carlos Kalmar conducting
© Patrick Pyszka

As well as attending free concerts, there are great programmes at Grant Park to draw young people into classical music. Classical Campers is a half-day programme which reaches 1400 children each summer. It involves storytelling and interactive workshops to get children into classical music, art, architecture and nature. They watch open orchestral rehearsals, then have a Q&A session with some of the musicians.

Project Inclusion is a programme which aims to increase diversity among orchestral ensembles and guide participants into careers in music. Young musicians entering the profession are given chance to play alongside Grant Park Orchestra members and are given one-to-one mentoring. There is also the Apprenticeship Chorale, which is an advanced training programme for those entering the profession. Young singers gain opportunities to rehearse and perform with the Grant Park Chorus. Further opportunities are afforded by the Young Artists Showcase. Each Friday evening at 5:30pm, students from local music schools and summer music camps get the chance to perform.

For free concerts and great performance opportunities, Grant Park has a lot to offer those in Chicago and beyond.