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July 2014
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Web Exclusive: Grant Park’s Christopher Bell, Conducting on the 4th

Grant Park Music Festival's Christopher Bell

Grant Park Music Festival's Christopher Bell

It’s become one of Chicago’s most hallowed 4th of July traditions: the Grant Park Orchestra’s Independence Day Salute. WFMT’s live broadcast of that concert draws one of the largest audiences of the year. In recent years, the honor of presenting that concert has fallen on the baton of Grant Park Chorus Director Christopher Bell, who has much to say about this tradition. Here he is in a Q and A with WFMT:

You will be performing for one of the largest crowds of the year. In the days leading up to this concert, what keeps you up at night?

If you mean what worries me…nothing particular, except perhaps a concern about the weather. So far this summer, we’ve seen both misty evenings and storms, as well as spectacularly calm and balmy evenings. So I’m hoping for a good day on Friday, the 4th, 2014.

Growing up in the U.K., what did you learn about American independence? What was that war called over there? What did you discover about the 4th of July upon your arrival in the United States?

It’s referred to as the American War of IndependenChristopherBellce and it is featured in history lessons taught in school, though only in the most general terms. I came to Chicago for the first time in 2000 and became Choral Director of the Grant Park Music Festival in 2002. Since then, I have learned a lot more about American history, including the Civil War. The 4th of July celebrations at the Festival have been a moveable feast over the past years, originally on the 3rd when we were at Petrillo, and moving from 3rd to 4th and back again, over the years that we have been at Pritzker. I miss the huge fireworks display that went along with the concert on 3rd July.

Where do you shop for your onstage outfits? What kind of look will you be going for with this year’s 4th of July concert?

I spot things throughout the year and try and source the main items early so that its not a last minute panic. Last year it was a red kilt with a stars and stripes vest and I had those already. But I was looking for trainers (sneakers?) with a stars and stripes pattern and couldn’t find them anywhere so ended up with red, white and blue Nike ones. This year I keep seeing them in shops but I’m going a different direction in 2014. I’m forbidden to tell you much about this year’s outfit, but let’s just say flag (its the 200th anniversary of the Star-Spangled Banner).

Are Copland, Sousa, Gershwin, and Bernstein played very often in the U.K.? Is there a style or musical approach to that repertoire that one learns by living here?

These composers are very well known in the UK. Appalachian Spring, multiple Sousa marches, American in Paris, the piano concertos, and the songs of Gershwin, and many pieces of Bernstein, including West Side Story which will be featured in the 2014 concert. In fact I have been preparing the Edinburgh Festival Chorus in Bernstein’s Kaddish Symphony for performance at the Edinburgh Festival later this year.

One gets the impression you hold your chorus to very high standards. It sounds like you also share some laughs together. How would you characterize that working relationship? Does it get easier, and what are some of your favorite memories?Bell

It’s important that the chorus realizes that I do want a high standard, and we work hard to achieve that …but when you are rehearsing together four evenings a week (and in a concert week there can be up to seven services), laughing and occasional lighter moments are a crucial balance to the intensity there can be.

Over the years we have developed a way of working, so singers know what I expect in certain places but there are always new people in the room (regular choristers sometimes have other singing/family commitments), so these guests need to be brought into the Grant Park Music Festival sound world.

It’s a great thrill when a section sings a crucial line and it’s musical, technically well sung and nicely blended.  I then feel I have chosen the right singers for the group and that’s very satisfying.  Favourite concerts over the years would be Britten’s War Requiem, Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, Sea Symphony, Glagolitic Mass and many, many a cappella concerts sung in some of the city’s fine churches (particularly Our Lady of Sorrows on Jackson – amazing building).

I’m looking forward to the Chorus’ two upcoming a cappella concerts – at the South Shore Cultural Center on July 17 at 7:00 pm, and the Columbus Park Refectory on July 20 at 3:00 pm. We performed there last year and they were terrific settings for the group.

July 3rd/4th has always been fun, and its a privilege that y’all let an Irishman conduct on your Independence Day. This is the first time in recent memory that the chorus has joined us, so this one will be particularly special.

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