The Jay Pritzker Pavilion, its majestic billowing steel sails embracing the cityscape that cradles Chicago's newest civic treasure, Millennium Park, opened at long last with an inaugural gala concert Friday night.
Officials feared showers would rain on what Mayor Richard Daley, leading the parade of civic and corporate dignitaries who christened he $475 million arts showplace, called "the most ambitious public and private undertaking in Chicago's history." But the dark clouds vanished as if by divine decree. The sea of humanity--exceeding the 10,000 capacity mark, by my rough estimate--spilling out of the pavilion to the far reaches of the Great Lawn, breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Grant Park Music Festival settled into its imposing new home, beginning an inaugural weekend of free events, classical music in the great Chicago summertime suddenly took on a whole new meaning and importance. The mayor's boast that Chicago will be "the envy of every other city in the world" seemed apt as audiences took in the park's magnificence.
But beyond the Frank Gehry architectural splendors, the gardens, and sculptures, there was one burning question on people's minds: How did the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus sound through the new state-of-the-art sound system the Talaske Group, the Oak Park acoustics firm, created for the festival?
The amplification certainly is a vast improvement over anything Grant Park audiences have known since the festival began, 69 years ago and survived two locations, including the Petrillo Music Shell. For the first time, delighted orchestra members can hear each other.
People out front, however, have less cause to cheer, at least in this breaking-in stage of the Talaske system, which has undergone numerous private trials already. The new rig, like the giant Anish Kapoor sculpture across the park, remains a work in progress. Indeed, the quality, depth and presence of sound still varies dramatically from place to place; ironically, the sonics are best at the back of the seating area and on the first half of the lawn. It's there where the clusters of loudspeakers (there are more than 150 altogether) designed to both reinforce and enhance the sound coming off the stage really kick in.
The program chosen by principal conductor Carlos Kalmar to showcase Grant Park's longtime musical "family" of soloists was sampled by myself and colleagues from various parts of the pavilion and lawn.
Most of what I heard from my seat in Row CC about two-thirds back from the stage was unamplified sound, with some electronic "sweetener." Soloist David Schrader's miked harpsichord, in Bach's F-Minor clavier concerto, came through well against a small string ensemble, but the strings' pizzicatos did not register clearly. The fine Grant Park Chorus produced a warm blur of sound for Verdi's "Te Deum" from which only isolated Latin words emerged distinctly.
The world premiere piece, John Corigliano's brief, suitably jubilant piece d'occasion, "Midsummer Fanfare," is built out of washes of sound and thus actually benefited from the lack of detail that seems to afflict sound in most of the main seating area. Heard farther back, the high winds and whooping horns that finally emerged from the tremolo strings leapt out of the texture with startling presence.
The sound men appeared to be turning up the sound levels with each piece, but it wasn't quite enough to achieve the wonted "room effect" in two movements of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto as played by Rachel Barton Pine. The soloist sizzled, but her fiddle sounded as small as she looked from a rear seat; farther back, she sounded like the fiddling firebrand we have long known and loved.
More than halfway back on the lawn the music must compete with the ambient noise of Michigan Avenue and of talking spectators. If you are seated or standing directly beneath a speaker cluster on the lawn, more sound appears to be coming from over your head than from the stage. One is reminded that even a sophisticated outdoor sound system can never trump the acoustics of a great indoor concert hall: At Millennium Park, one well-timed baby's cry can pierce the loudest orchestral crescendo. But the biggest design miscalculation was Gehry's locating the computerized sound console at the center of the seating area. This ugly concrete structure obstructs views and must move.
In fairness, nothing quite like the Talaske system has been tried at any outdoor festival in the world, and it will take time for the audio engineers and festival officials to get it to optimally serve the variety of orchestral and choral music Grant Park is offering this summer. In effect, the festival has been handed the keys to a powerful new Maserati, but it will have to learn through constant practice how to handle all that muscle under the pedal. It will take time for the orchestra's "new" sound to rise to the magnificence of the surrounding park. So let's wait and see before pronouncing any definitive judgments.