Related: Grant Park Music Fest Schedule | Grant Park - Fast Facts | Millennium Park - Fast Facts
The Grant Park Music Festival was conceived by Mayor A. J. Cermak during the Great Depression in 1931 when the city presented a series of free concerts to lift the spirits of Chicagoans.
The following year, James C. Petrillo, the president of the Chicago Federation of Musicians, vigorously labored to turn these concerts into a permanent summer tradition. Petrillo’s motives were twofold - to make classical music available for all Chicagoans, and to provide secure employment for union musicians.
As Petrillo pursued his dream of a concert series in Grant Park, the area just south of the park was being transformed for the Century of Progress Fair to commemorate Chicago’s 100th anniversary. Among the developments was a venue for daily concerts by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
In 1934, Petrillo was appointed to the newly created Park Commission and convinced the commission that a permanent series of open-air symphonic performances in the new shell would benefit the city. With the venue, seats, security, parking and $100,000 raised from the public, Petrillo inaugurated the symphonic series in 1935.
On July 1, 1935, the Grant Park Concerts made their debut, commencing with the march from Wagner’s Tannhauser. The following year, the Chicago Park District assumed complete financing of the concerts. During that time, some of music’s biggest stars performed at Grant Park, including violinist Jascha Heifetz, conductor Andre Kostelanetz and soprano Lily Pons. The concerts were often broadcast on NBC and CBS. The Festival quickly became an immensely popular Chicago tradition and enabled audiences, often of ten thousand or more per night, to experience free performances by legendary artists and a top-caliber orchestra and chorus.
In 1943, the Chicago Park District assembled a single resident orchestra - the Grant Park Orchestra, under the direction of Principal Conductor Nicolai Malko. Since then, other prestigious conductors have held the position, including Irwin Hoffman, Leonard Slatkin, David Zinman, Zdnek Macal and Hugh Wolff.
In 2000, Carlos Kalmar was named the Festival’s Principal Conductor. The Grant Park Orchestra was nominated for a Grammy® Award in 2004 for its CD entitled Robert Kurka: Symphonic Works. The 100-member Grant Park Chorus was formed in 1962 by Thomas Peck, who led the group until his death in 1994. His protégé, Michael Cullen, then led the chorus until 1997, after which a series of guest conductors worked with the ensemble until an international search identified current chorus director, Christopher Bell. With Bell’s appointment in 2002, the Festival's artistic leadership roster was solidified.
A new “temporary” music shell was built in Grant Park in 1978 and named in honor of Petrillo. The Petrillo Music Shell was home to the Grant Park Music Festival for the next 25 years. The shell is now used as a venue for numerous other Chicago festivals, but the Grant Park Orchestra returns to the Petrillo each summer to perform an Independence Eve concert, complete with a fireworks display presented by the city of Chicago.
In 2004, the Festival moved to its new home in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. This state-of-the-art music pavilion was designed by internationally-renowned architect Frank Gehry and features an unparalleled acoustic system created by the Talaske Group, Inc. of Oak Park, IL. The first permanent outdoor installation of its kind in the United States, the Pavilion’s sound system features digitally processed “virtual architecture” and an open-air acoustical canopy to create a state-of-the-art sonic experience.
Since 2001, the Festival has been presented through a unique collaboration of the Chicago Park District, the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and the Grant Park Orchestral Association. The Grant Park Orchestral Association is a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting the Festival’s programs and priorities. The Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus reach over one million people annually through free classical music performances and the Festival’s extensive community engagement program brings music education to young people from across the city each summer.
Among the artists the Festival has presented are vocalists Lily Pons, Mario Lanza, and Marian Anderson; pianists Van Cliburn, Alfred Brendel, and Daniel Barenboim; violinists Jascha Heifetz and Pinchas Zukerman; conductors Nikolai Malko, Andre Kostelanetz, and Leonard Slatkin.
It has featured new works by contemporary composers such as John Corigliano, Aaron Jay Kernis, and Michael Torke; and artists from other traditions such as Benny Goodman, Mitch Miller, Poi Dog Pondering, and The Joffrey Ballet. The Festival has flourished under the guidance of resident artistic leaders such as current Principal Conductor Carlos Kalmar, current Chorus Director Christopher Bell, as well as past leaders.
The Festival has also drawn a range of audiences almost unparalleled in the world of classical music, from passionate aficionados to vast numbers of people who have never before encountered a live orchestra.