Orchestra Spotlight:
Grant Park Symphony Orchestra

Interview with James W. Palermo, Artistic & General Director

James W. PalermoGPMF Artistic & General Director, James W. Palermo

Serving as Artistic & General director for the festival, James Palermo has one of the most unique leadership roles in any performing arts organization in the country. Not only does Jim have the typical set of responsibilities for the non-artistic growth and stability of the organization but he’s also empowered with the authority to make all of their artistic decisions.

Polyphonic.org Senior Editor & Research Principal, Drew McManus, spoke with Jim over the telephone about the organization’s future.

Drew McManus: How do you see GPMF fitting into the grand scheme of the classical music’s evolution?

Jim Palermo: For us, a large impact is that we’re free, so there are no impediments to access, as such; our Festival has evolved in a particular way. For instance, local residents are very proud of the fact that we’re free and it’s this aspect that gives us some flexibility to do some more adventurous programming.
We can look creatively toward projects instead of only worrying about selling tickets. We use that momentum to stretch the boundaries and develop special relationships with contemporary composers and unique performers.

This summer we’re doing Mozart’s Requiem with a group of Tibetan Monks who are chanting between sections of the Mass. The idea behind the project is to draw a link between the two faith traditions: juxtaposing them and demonstrating that while the faith traditions may be similar, the musical traditions are very far apart. I think it will be a haunting, even jarring performance in some respects but will have a great deal of impact. It’s certainly not something you would experience in a typical concert hall setting. It also connects us to our community in a more meaningful way, providing an outlet to serve various Asian constituents as well as people who are concerned about what’s happening in Tibet.

Drew McManus: Is everything done at Grant Park as avant-garde as that?

Jim Palermo: No. As the Festival’s director, I want the orchestra to have familiar repertoire and also present it in a way that is pertinent in our community. Even though I’m a conservatory trained musician, the world has changed so much around us I notice that the traditional repertoire doesn’t always draw the same crowds as it used to. I have to figure out a way to connect our music to people so everyone benefits. This year, we are presenting 10 Great Symphonies in Ten Weeks, including warhorses by Tchaikovsky, Strauss, Franck, Bruckner, Brahms, and Prokofiev, along side works by Cesar Chavez, David Diamond, Carl Vine, and Aaron Jay Kernis.

As such, we actively promote that people can come on their own terms and make the environment friendly.

Drew McManus: Do you work with the musicians or the principal conductor with regard to artistic planning?

Jim Palermo: We’ve had more interaction with the artistic committee in the past but not so much in the recent years but I certainly welcome input from an organized artistic advisory committee, and individual players send suggestions all the time.

My official title is “Artistic & General Director” but I do work with GPMF principal conductor Carlos Kalmar as a partner to shape the season, especially the programs he conducts. In some cases, it has taken a few years to get a program on the roster but we always manage to get it in at one point.

When it comes to traditional repertoire, we program Strauss and Mahler as much for the ensemble as the audience because it always serves to galvanize them. Our players are always diligent about the work they do but they come together for the big, monumental repertory in an exciting way, as though to say, “This is a special event.”

Drew McManus: Now that Millennium Park has opened, do you plan on staying to grow the organization toward its potential in this new venue?

A stunning world class venue, day or night.A stunning world class venue, day or night. (click to enlarge)

Jim Palermo: This season is my 12th season and when I arrived I felt this was a great group and there was even more potential. A few years after my first season, the Millennium project got under way and I knew this would be a special place. I don’t know what the future would hold for me but I think this will always be a unique place that offers something special.

I’ve found in my career here that people peg associations, like festival organizations, in certain ways but I think the real story has always been about how good this orchestra and chorus really are. They respond remarkably to a very intense work environment. Since Millennium Park opened, this world class venue has really drawn attention to our Festival and its musicians that we never enjoyed before.

Now, we feel like we’re in a palace for music so all the factors have come together in the best possible way. We received a Grammy nomination in 2004 and that’s a great way for people to begin to sit up and take notice of our really wonderful orchestra.


Comments (Click to Hide)

These are all inspiring interviews. I wish there were more summer ensembles with such organization and vision. I would say that Grant Park is very lucky, but after reading all the interviews, I would punctuate that thought with the fact that Grant Park has put in a tremendous amount of hard work and commitment. The ones that are truly lucky are the audience members.
katin on June 16, 2019 at 11:39 AM

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