There it sits, off in a corner — at Jackson Boulevard and Columbus Drive — a dilapidated hulk suddenly dwarfed and humbled by the mighty Pritzker Pavilion to the north.

More than a quarter century ago, in 1978, the Petrillo Music Shell was the gleaming new star on Chicago's musical landscape, a bright new home for classical music and jazz, blues, rock and country, a place where everyone could gather to hear indelible art at the best price going — free.

But the opening of Millennium Park, with the spectacular Pritzker Pavilion at its center, inevitably casts doubt on the long-term future of the Petrillo Music Shell. How long can this battered, acoustically substandard shell endure in the face of its more luxuriant, more high-tech, more pristinely landscaped neighbor? And if it survives for a short while (or longer), how can the Petrillo coexist with the Pritzker, the recently opened Harris Theater and the various Millennium Park plazas where music also might flourish?

Musical power shift

The balance of musical power in the heart of the city is about to shift dramatically, but city officials are not saying exactly how.

They ought to, and soon, because a large part of Chicago's reputation as a musical nexus is at stake. The right decisions on bringing these far-flung venues into harmony could transform Chicago's downtown parks into some of the most musically vibrant acreage in the country. The wrong ones could ensure a cacophony of competing shows, audiences, interests and decibel levels.

"For the immediate future, the Petrillo Music Shell will stay open," says Karen Ryan, a spokeswoman for the city's Department of Cultural Affairs, which has been collaborating with the Mayor's Office of Special Events to plan programming for Millennium Park and adjoining Grant Park (where the Petrillo sits).

"The big fests — such as the Blues Festival and the Jazz Festival — will be in Petrillo for the near future, but nothing has been decided beyond that."

Which means that although city revenues and cultural philanthropists have provided hundreds of millions of dollars for Millennium Park and its showcase music pavilion, most of the city's music festivals will be held elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the manicured gardens surrounding the Pritzker Pavilion will serve the comparatively smallish audiences and classically inclined patrons of the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra.

Not enough space

The reason, explains Ryan, is that the Pritzker Pavilion holds just under 4,000 seats and accommodates about 7,000 additional listeners on the lawn. The tens of thousands who flock to the music festivals at the Petrillo simply wouldn't fit at the Pritzker Pavilion.

"Maybe we'll build a bigger pavilion [to replace the Petrillo] down the line, in Hutchinson Field," farther to the south, adds Ryan.

What is emerging, then, is a separate-but-unequal approach to staging concerts in Millennium and Grant Parks. The high-toned, classical events will unfold amid the comforts of the Pritzker Pavilion; the populist blues, rock, jazz, gospel and country concerts will remain at the flawed Petrillo and, perhaps at some later date, in an even larger setting in Hutchinson Field.

Add to the mix the subterranean 1,500-seat Harris Theater, which has only one booking scheduled for this summer (in addition to the Grant Park Orchestra's early-summer stint), and you have three music venues in close proximity functioning almost as if the others weren't there. At the same time, Millennium Park's ice skating rink — which is located between Michigan Avenue and the new Park Grill restaurant — recently began presenting Thursday night "smooth jazz" concerts for paid admission.

Clearly, a musical master plan has not yet emerged.

Perhaps an underlying philosophy would help: The Millennium and Grant Park performance spaces should be conceived as a whole, with all the stages functioning in tandem toward a common aesthetic goal.

It's a mistake, for instance, to confine the biggest music festivals to the Petrillo Music Shell and its surrounding Butler Field. Over the years, that formula has transformed the summer music festivals from decent, manageable events into beer-soaked revelries where music is not always the main attraction. If the city is intent on running mass-audience fests, why not augment them with alternative, better-focused concerts geared toward a somewhat smaller audience at the Pritzker Pavilion?

"That's a possibility — there could be some involvement with the Pritzker stage," says Cindy Gatziolis, spokeswoman for the Mayor's Office of Special Events, which produces the city's summer musical festivals.