By Mark Guarino
When Millennium Park invites concertgoers into its seats for the first time next weekend, Chicago will be adding a venue considered the crown jewel to its flourishing downtown arts scene.
The Jay Pritzker Pavilion opens with a burst of activity, which will include performances by the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus, concerts designed to showcase the city’s diverse music scene, dance and drum ensembles and even a blessing from iconic Chicago writer Studs Terkel.
The main component of the Pritzker is the Grant Park Music Festival, Chicago’s long-running free orchestral series, in its 69th year this summer. The series moves from the Petrillo Music Shell to the pavilion, its new permanent home.
Its arrival translates to more than just an available stage to play music. Even through it only presents 35 concerts between late June and late August, the festival will have the run of the pavilion year-round. Besides housing offices for its staff, the labyrinth of corridors behind and underneath the pavilion includes a music library, practice rooms, a full-size rehearsal room with skylights, instrument storage space and dressing rooms. Hydraulic lifts were installed to raise heavy instruments to the stage and movable risers will accommodate whatever configurations planned between orchestra and chorus. Sliding stage doors will allow the stage to transform into an intimate venue during winter months.
But as controversial as the pavilion and park have been to the City — it is four years past deadline and $325 million over budget — the immediate programming for the venue remains, for now, limited. Currently, there are no plans to host any concerts at the Pritzker other than classical music. Because the grand opening takes place early in the festival’s season, the “focus will be on the orchestra,” said Karen Ryan, festival spokesperson. “We will be the permanent tenants and will have priority,” she said, adding the venue’s adaptability will allow for different programming as time goes on.
The chief appeal of the new venue is sound. It starts with the architecture of the stage. No ninety-degree angles exist in its design, allowing unusual curvature for sound to move freely without being trapped in one direction. Musicians on every corner of the stage will be free to hear the others while in performance. The floor riser system will allow the sound design to be controlled in accordance to the requirements of the performance. Instruments played in the upper register will now be able to feel, rather than hear, instruments in the lower register through vibrations, allowing all musicians to play consistently and evenly together.
A loudspeaker system has been installed to run the length of the park, overhead on trellises in clusters of two, reaching almost 12,000 people (7-8,000 on the lawn, 4,000 in the seats). The trellis design adds to the character of the park. By floating above concertgoers, it does not clutter up the view of the city while at the same time giving a rich, full sound to all corners of the park.
“You’re going to feel like you’re in a real concert hall,” said James Palermo, artistic and general director of the Grant Park Music Festival.
The major City music festivals are currently scheduled to remain in and around the Petrillo Music Shell. The Chicago Blues Festival and Taste of Chicago use almost nine square blocks of space, said Jim Law, director of Special Events, the City department that produces the festivals, making them unsuitable to ever be fully staged at the Pritzker.
Law said the City is “just now learning how well the different facilities will work in proximity with each other” and some festival programming may overlap from Petrillo to the Pritzker. Petrillo, he said, will be dismantled sometime in the future and the City is now looking at future festival sites, including south of Buckingham Fountain.
Even though next weekend will celebrate the opening of the Pritzker, The Joan W. and Irving B. Harris Theater for Music and Dance, the second theatre inside Millennium Park has been open since last November. With a capacity of 1,500 (1,100 on the floor, 400 in the balcony), the theatre will provide residencies to 12 diverse arts organizations including Ballet Chicago, the Chicago Opera Theatre, the Mexican Fine Arts Museum, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and the Old Town School of Folk Music.
Having access to a larger space will provide more flexible programming for the Old Town School, said Old Town Executive Director David Roche. The school’s main location in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood holds 425 people. In January, the school hosted a show by Celtic singer-songwriter and fiddler Natalie MacMaster at the Harris and Roche said they expect to use the facility at least once a year. The larger space will allow shows “that will have a little more spectacle or movement.”
“We would like to do more world music and at least have one winter concert there a year,” he said. “It’s a great space. It gives us a downtown presence. We can feature … Americana artists (on the North Side) and be considered a major player (downtown). This seals the deal.”