Is there a word that promises fun more than "festival?" We know. "Chocolate" is right up there, but stop being a distraction. Summer music festivals are a Chicago sonic mainstay, in a city that seems to have gone fest crazy of late. It used to be that it was just Lollapalooza, Blues Fest and Ravinia. But recently, everyone has raised their game, from Grant Park's classical music fest to Riot Fest, and all points in between. We asked our critics, Greg Kot, Howard Reich and John von Rhein, to lay out their summer of festival goodness.
Local classical music buffs get to hear world-class performances week after week at the area's "Big Two" summer fests, the Grant Park Music Festival in downtown Chicago, and the Ravinia Festival in north suburban Highland Park. That's not something you should take for granted.
To help you navigate the hot-weather bounty, we have singled out five events at each festival that look unusually promising from this distance. Go and enjoy!
Berlioz's "Romeo et Juliette": Complete performances of this strange and wonderful dramatic symphony are rare in Chicago, so these concerts, led by principal conductor Carlos Kalmar, are to be eagerly anticipated. June 13-14. Note that the venue has been shifted to the Auditorium Theater to avoid conflicting with the nearby Chicago Blues Festival.
Grant Park Chorus: The annual a cappella choral program by director Christopher Bell's remarkable ensemble once again includes intriguing 20th century repertory you don't get to hear very often. July 17 at South Shore Cultural Center, 7059 S. South Shore Drive; and July 20 at Columbus Park Refectory, 5701 W. Jackson Blvd.
Leonard Slatkin: The festival's former principal conductor returns to lead contrasting rarities by Dmitri Shostakovich and the Dominican composer and pianist Michel Camilo. July 25-26.
National Youth Orchestra of the U.S.: David Robertson conducts the ensemble, which is made up of some of America's finest young instrumentalists, with the Illinois-born violin virtuoso Gil Shaham as soloist. July 28.
"The Legend of the Northern Lights": Inspired by a children's story about the origins of the aurora borealis, Christopher Theofanidis' symphonic work will be accompanied by a film by Jose Francisco Salgado that incorporates NASA and Canadian Space Agency images. World premiere. Aug. 8-9.
Susanna Malkki leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra: Amid the movie, Broadway and pops nights crowding the 78th CSO residency, this concert stands out. The highly regarded Finnish conductor will be making her Ravinia debut, and her soloist in a Tchaikovsky-Prokofiev program will be the superb violinist Midori, who joins the Ravinia Steans Music Institute faculty this summer. July 16.
Strauss' "Salome": The first of music director James Conlon's three operas with the CSO this summer should almost make up for the orchestra's relatively scant attention to Richard Strauss' 150th birthday anniversary during the winter season. Patricia Racette will sing her first Salome, with Egils Silins, Wolfgang Schmidt and Gabriele Schnaut in other leading roles. Aug. 2.
Chicago Pro Musica: The multi-talented Hershey Felder is back, this time as director, presiding over stagings of Stravinsky's wry fable "The Soldier's Tale" and a sequel, "The Devil's Tale," by composer James Stephenson. Aug. 5, Martin Theatre.
Mozart's "Don Giovanni" and "The Marriage of Figaro": There are few more alluring combo-pacs under the summer sun than Conlon, Mozart, the CSO and the intimate Martin Theatre. The casts are pretty alluring too. Christopher Maltman will portray the dissolute Don, with Tamara Wilson, Aga Mikolaj and Ailyn Perez as the women in Giovanni's life. The servants and their masters in "Figaro" include John Relyea, Lisette Oropesa, Soile Isokoski, Stephane Degout and Renee Rapier. Aug. 14 and 16 ("Giovanni"); Aug. 15 and 17 ("Figaro").
The Knights: The dynamic, Manhattan-based chamber orchestra returns to Ravinia with soloists Dawn Upshaw singing Maria Schneider's Grammy-winning "Winter Morning Walks" on the first program, cellist Yo-Yo Ma playing Strauss' "Don Quixote" on the second. Aug. 20, Martin Theatre; Aug. 21, Pavilion.
Grant Park Music Festival: Unless otherwise noted, all programs are by the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus and will take place at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park, Michigan Avenue and Randolph Street. Admission is free; 312-742-7638, grantparkmusicfestival.com
Ravinia Festival: Green Bay and Lake-Cook roads, Highland Park. Times and ticket prices vary; 847-266-5100, ravinia.org
Come summer, Chicagoans celebrate jazz and related genres en masse, under the sun and stars. Here are some of the most promising of this summer's festivals:
Chicago Blues Festival: Music will unfold for three days in Grant Park, at On June 13, headliners at the Petrillo Music Shell will include the Otis Taylor Band and "A Tribute to John Lee 'Sonny Boy' Williamson" featuring the Siegel-Schwall Blues Band, Billy Branch and others. June 14 at Petrillo: Bettye LaVette and Willie Clayton. June 15 at Petrillo: Nikki Hill, Aaron Neville and Dr. John. 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. June 13-15, Columbus Drive and Jackson Boulevard. Free; chicagbluesfestival.us
Chicago Latin Jazz Festival: The 8th annual event runs two days and celebrates a range of musical dialects in an eminently appealing setting: the Humboldt Park Boathouse. Assuming the presenters can improve the sound, which can be quite boomy and over-amplified, this event makes for an idyllic weekend. The program starts with Jose Porcayo in a "Tribute to Victor Venegas"; James Sanders' Proyecto Libre with tenor saxophonist Edward Wilkerson, Jr.; and the Johnny Blas Afro Libre Orchestra. The music-making continues July 19 with Tambours Sans Frontieres; Holy Cross/Immaculate Heart of Mary Marimba Ensemble; Juan Pastor's Chinchano; Ruben Alvarez's Sun Sounds; and William Cepeda with Victor Garcia and others. Presented by the non-profit Jazz Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Park District July 18-19, Humboldt Park Boathouse, 1301 N. Sacramento Ave. Free; 312-427-1676 or jazzinchicago.org
Ravinia Festival: The jazz pickings at Ravinia are much diminished from the abundance of the music there in the 1990s. Even so, a few events stand out. "Ramsey Lewis in Performance and Conversation" will start at 8 p.m. June 24 in the Martin Theatre. Kevin Cole, today's pre-eminent piano interpreter of music by George Gershwin, will play "Rhapsody in Blue" with James Conlon conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at 8 p.m. July 29 (Cole fills in for the previously announced Chucho Valdes). And the unstoppable Tony Bennett will return to Ravinia at 8:30 p.m. Aug. 16 – when he will have turned 88. Lake-Cook and Green Bay Roads, Highland Park. Prices vary; 847-266-5100 or ravinia.org
Chicago Gospel Music Festival: The 29th annual edition will open with performances from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. June 27 at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St.; then move on to outdoor shows on two stages 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. June 28 and 29 at Ellis Park, 37th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue. Among the announced headliners: the McDonald's Inspiration Celebration Gospel Tour with Kurt Carr, Mississippi Mass Choir, Anthony Brown, Uncle Reece and Moses Tyson, Jr. Free; chicagogospelmusicfestival.us
Chicago Jazz Festival: The grand finale of the summer jazz season unfolds in and near Millennium Park, with the main events on the city's most appealing outdoor stage: the Pritzker Pavilion. As always, the talent roster runs long. The 36th annual event kicks off at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St., with performances from noon to 4:30 p.m. Aug. 28, highlights including Erwin Helfer, Keefe Jackson, David Boykin, Paulinho Garcia and Judy Roberts. Then the proceedings move to the Pritzker Pavilion at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 28 with "Homage to Nelson Mandela" in the form of Ernest Dawkins' "Memory in the Center, Afro Jazz Opera." Pritzker Pavilion headliners on Aug. 29 will include the George Freeman/Mike Allemana Quartet, Rufus Reid, Myra Melford and Terence Blanchard with Ravi Coltrane and Lionel Loueke. Pritzker Pavilion on Aug. 30: Ari Brown, Gary Burton, Tom Harrell's Colors of a Dream with Esperanza Spalding, Dave Holland's PRISM. Pritzker Pavilion on Aug. 31: Bobby Broom, Miguel Zenon, Cecile McLorin Salvant and Sun Ra Arkestra. Admission is free; chicagojazzfestival.us
As usual, the summer months are loaded with great outdoor music. Here are a few of the key festivals and events through mid-September:
Downtown Sound: The free annual Monday night series returns to one of the city's crown jewels – the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. The stellar lineup includes Bob Mould, Richard Thompson and Shara Worden's My Brightest Diamond, as well as Syrian festival favorite Omar Souleyman, Mauritanian singer Noura Mint Seymali and psych-rockers Wooden Shjips. 6:30 p.m. Mondays through Aug. 11 (except for July 28) at Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park, Michigan Avenue and Randolph Street. Free; cityofchicago.org
Spring Awakening: The electronic dance music community will gather for the third straight year at Soldier Field for a lineup headlined by local-boy-made-good Kaskade, Pretty Lights and Tiesto, and three days' worth of world-class DJ's and electronic-music composers, including Knife Party, Diplo, Big Gigantic, Benny Benassi, Flux Pavilion and Steve Aoki. 3 p.m. June 13, 1 p.m. June 14-15, Soldier Field, 1410 Museum Campus Drive. $95 per day; springawakeningfestival.com
Green Music Fest: In the city of street festivals – virtually every summer weekend has one, or more likely, several – this Wicker Park tradition consistently nails down a top-notch lineup. Guided By Voices and Bobby Bare Jr. are among the must-see's this year. June 21-22, Damen Avenue between North and Schiller Avenues. $5 suggested donation; greenmusicfestchicago.com
FitzGerald's American Music Festival: Since 1981, the venerable Berwyn roadhouse has championed all things Americana, from zydeco and blues to rock 'n' roll and swing during its four-day, multi-stage holiday celebration. Headliners include Alejandro Escovedo, Marcia Ball, Joe Ely and Reckless Kelly. 5 p.m. July 2-3 and 1:30 p.m. July 4-5, FitzGerald's, 6615 W. Roosevelt Rd., Berwyn. $30 per day, $100 four-day pass; fitzgeraldsnightclub.com
Pitchfork Music Festival: The always reliable indie showcase returns with headliners Beck, Neutral Milk Hotel and Kendrick Lamar. The packed undercard includes Giorgio Moroder – one of the godfathers of disco – joins Danny Brown, Grimes, St. Vincent, Death Grips, Tune-Yards, Sharon Van Etten, Pusha T, Slowdive and Deafheaven. 3 p.m. July 18 and noon July 19-20, Union Park, 1501 W. Randolph St. $60 per day and $130 three-day pass (sold out); pitchforkmusicfestival.com
Wicker Park Fest: Best street festival lineup of the summer? Lydia Loveless, Nick Waterhouse, Jeff the Brotherhood, Bonzie and Woods are among the higlights. Noon July 26-27, Milwaukee Avenue between North and Paulina Avenues. $5 suggested donation; wickerparkbucktown.com
Lollapalooza: There's an undeniable sense of been-there-done-that with this year's headliners. Five of the six have appeared previously at the festival: Calvin Harris, Eminem, Arctic Monkeys, Kings of Leon and Skrillex. The only outlier is the reunited OutKast. But as usual, the prelims are where the real action happens, including sets from Chicagoans Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa and Krewella. Noon Aug. 1-3, Grant Park. $250 three-day pass and $100 one-day pass (sold out); lollapalooza.com
North Coast Festival: The intersection where jam bands, electronic music and hip-hop converge, North Coast has carved out its own niche on the summer outdoor landscape. Bassnectar, Kid Cudi and Snoop Dogg headline. 2 p.m. Aug. 29-31, Union Park. $149 three-day pass; lollapalooza.com
Hideout Block Party/Onion & A.V. Fest: The Hideout's annual block party brings the tiny giant of Chicago's club scene outdoors for an end-of-summer blowout that includes Death Cab for Cutie, the War on Drugs, the reunited Dismemberment Plan and the Funky Meters, the New Orleans quartet that includes founding members George Porter and Art Neville, plus Russell Batiste and Ian Neville. 5 p.m. Sept. 5, 12:30 p.m. Sept. 6.The Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia Ave. $65 two-day pass; hideoutchicago.com
Riot Fest: The Cure, Jane's Addiction and the National are among the headliners for the 10th annual festival, which has moved from an underground-leaning indoor event at multiple locations to a three-day must-see extravaganza in beautiful Humboldt Park. But the real attraction is the undercard, which includes former Pussy Riot members/activists Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alekhina, who are scheduled to participate in an "interactive panel discussion." 2 p.m. Sept. 12-14, Humboldt Park, 1440 N. Sacramento Ave. $179.98 for three-day pass; riotfest.org
-- Greg Kot
Twitter @gregkotCopyright © 2015, RedEye