Summer Fests: Warm Air Renews Its Familiar Lure Across Midwest

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PREVIEW – At last, some good news! After a year of dark halls, curtailed programming, and staff furloughs due to coronavirus protocols, some normalcy appears on the way in the classical music world. Many North American summer festivals (but not all) have announced that they are returning to live, in-person concerts this summer, and most fans probably agree that these events can’t come soon enough. Here’s a look at key events of six summer festivals in the central U.S:

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis takes its productions outdoors

St. Louis, Mo., now playing through June 20: Full details.
To keep audiences as safe as possible during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Opera Theatre of St. Louis is moving its four 2021 productions outdoors to a new open-air stage. All four productions last no more than 90 minutes without intermission, including Highway 1, U.S.A., one of nine operas written by William Grant Still, the first American composer to have a work produced by New York City Opera. The one-act, led by Leonard Slatkin, runs through June 17 and features soprano Nicole Cabell and baritone Will Liverman (pictured) as a couple pushed by financial and family strain to the breaking point.

Also of note: Through June 11, Gianni Schicchi, starring baritone Levi Hernandez; through June 20, Poulenc’s La voix humaine, starring soprano Patricia Racette in one of her signature roles; and through June 18 from New Works, Bold Voices Lab, a trio including Laura Karpman’s On the Edge, about the pandemic parenting challenge; Steven Mackey’s Moon Tea, which re-imagines a meeting among Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip, and the Apollo 11 astronauts after the 1969 moon landing; and Damien Sneed and Karen Chilton’s The Tongue & The Lash, which imagines a conversation between cultural giants James Baldwin and William F. Buckley, Jr., after squaring off publicly in the historic 1964 debate, “Is the American Dream at the Expense of the American Negro?”

Grant Park Festival premieres Jessie Montgomery viola concerto

Chicago, Ill., July 2-Aug. 21: Full details.
The Grant Park Music Festival, which takes place in Millennium Park with Chicago’s dramatic skyline as a backdrop, presents a summer season with important concessions to COVID-19 safety. The event will run eight weeks instead of the usual ten, and a maximum of 65 musicians and singers will be onstage. Music director Carlos Kalmar has put an emphasis on new and adventuresome works in recent years. Notable this year is the July 16-17 world premiere of Jessie Montgomery’s viola concerto entitled L.E.S. Characters, with soloist Masumi Per Rostad, a former member of the Pacifica Quartet. Montgomery takes over this fall as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Mead Composer-in-Residence. (Co-commissioners City Music Cleveland, Interlochen Center for the Arts, the Orlando Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra have also booked performances of the concerto.)

Other highlights: On July 2 and 3, Dances in the Canebrakes by Florence Price, the Chicago-based Africa-American composer who died in 1953 and has recently been the focus of a considerable revival; July 14, Anna Clyne’s perpetual motion Sound and Fury (preview it above) with Haydn’s Nicolai Mass; July 21, Psalm 24, by Lili Boulanger, the gifted French composer who died at age 24 in 1918, on a program with Jonathan Dove’s 2000 choral piece The Passing of the Year, which was cited by Gramophone Magazine as “a major work which deserves to become a choral repertory mainstay;” and July 28, emerging flutist Anthony Trionfo, who recently won First Prize at the 2016 Young Concert Artists International Auditions, in Saverio Mercadante’s Flute Concerto.

Abridged classics play out in Cincinnati Opera’s outdoor season

Summit Park, Ohio, July 17-31: Full details.
To offset the dangers of the coronavirus, the Cincinnati Opera has moved its summer season outdoors to Summit Park, a popular rock concert arena and home to the biggest Independence Day fireworks display in the region. The company will present 90-minute versions of three famed operas, all featuring the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Cincinnati Opera Chorus. Featured are: July 17-30, Carmen, led by Spanish conductor Ramón Tebar, with mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges as the femme fatale; July 23-31, Tosca, starring Puerto Rican soprano Ana María Martínez, Chinese-American Xian Zhang conducting; and July 24 and 29, The Barber of Seville, led by Italian conductor Renato Balsadonna, with American baritone Chris Kenney as the clever barber.

Marin Alsop takes chief conductor, curating roles at Ravinia Fest

Highland Park, Ill., July 1-Sept. 26: Full details.
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra will be back at the Ravinia Festival, its longtime summer home in the northern Chicago suburb of Highland Park, for its full residency of 15 concerts. But coronavirus protocols cap the number of onstage musicians to about 50, limiting the repertoire it can present. The ever-adaptable Marin Alsop, who begins her first season as chief conductor and curator, is undeterred, leading seven programs, mixing classics and more adventuresome selections, and introducing young artists she is championing, including guest conductor Jonathan Rush (July 10). Alsop and Rush will share podium duties at the Celebrating America concert (July 10), which also features the Midwest premieres of Stacy Garrop’s The Battle for the Ballot, Laura Karpman’s All American, Carlos Simon’s Fate Now Conquers, and the Chicago Symphony debut of James P. Johnson’s Harlem Symphony and Victory Stride.

Other highlights: July 1, 5, 7 and 12, The Breadth of Brahms for Solo Piano, Garrick Ohlsson, pianist; July 23, Copland Clarinet Concerto, Anthony McGill, clarinetist (Chicago Symphony debut), Alsop, conductor; Aug. 31, Recital No. 1: Mass, with bass-baritone Davóne Tines and pianist Adam Nielsen in works by such composers as Caroline Shaw and Tyshawn Sorey; and Sept. 9, the NEXUS Chamber Music ensemble offers the world premiere of Augusta Read Thomas’ Upon Wings of Words (Emily Dickinson Settings), for soprano and string quartet with vocal soloist Kristina Bachrach.

Des Moines Metro Opera ranges from Plateé to Fellow Travelers

Indianola, Iowa, July 2-25: Full details.
Although seating is limited to 25-50 percent capacity because of COVID-19 safety precautions, the Des Moines Metro Opera has made no cuts to its summer offerings. The company offers a highly varied trio of mainstage offerings topped July 10-23 by its first foray into French baroque opera. Featured is a new production of Plateé, Jean-Philippe Rameau’s 1745 operatic masterpiece, with tenor Taylor Stayton, decked out in a corset and high heels, in the title role. Also in the line-up: July 2-25, Stephen Sondheim’s Tony Award-winning Sweeney Todd; July 3-24, Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, David Neely, conductor; July 17, the Metro Opera debut of Gregory Spears’ Fellow Travelers (pictured above), with baritone Joseph Lattanzi and tenor Christian Sanders in the main roles.

Pianist Parker heads Minnesota Orchestra’s Summer at Orchestra Hall

Minneapolis, Minn., July 16-Aug. 28: Full details.

In 2019, the Minnesota Orchestra chose the free-thinking pianist Jon Kimura Parker as its creative partner to help the ensemble design a replacement for Sommerfest, its long-running summer festival. Newly named Summer at Orchestra Hall, the offering was to have begun in 2020 but has been postponed until 2022 because of the coronavirus. Instead, a brief interim line-up this summer ends June 25-26, when Osmo Vänskä (pictured above) will conduct the world premiere of his own 8-minute Overture on an unusual program including Coleridge-Taylor’s Nonet (for 2 violins, viola, cello, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon and piano) and the Kurt Weill Violin Concerto with the orchestra’s concertmaster, Erin Keefe.