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Concert Review: "The Baseball Music Project"

Not long after the Cubs' big win yesterday in Cincinnati, I packed up my kids and headed out to the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, to take in something different from their normal classical music fare, The Baseball Music Project. From their website:

Founded in 2004 by a group of music professionals with a nearly uncontainable love and passion for both baseball and music, The Baseball Music Project is dedicated to fostering greater awareness of the cultural lineage and historical significance of music written about baseball, through concerts, recordings, and related outreach events and projects.

So while we await the Cubs' attempt to tie the Brewers (who are idle today) for first place, a little something for all you Culture Vultures.

The Ravinia Festival, if you've never been there, is held during the summer months, with mainly classical concerts featuring the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and a few pop/rock concerts (later this summer, for example, Hootie and the Blowfish, Natalie Cole, and Aretha Franklin are scheduled to appear), with a pavilion seating about 5,000, and lawn seating for several thousand more, where some people set up elaborate picnic tables complete with balloons and candles, and food that's more expensive than you'd find at most fancy restaurants.

We didn't go that route -- a couple of folding chairs and sandwiches were enough -- and settled in to both hear and view this show, which featured some baseball photos and paintings shown on large video screens.

The show was hosted and narrated by Cubs PA announcer Wayne Messmer. He played to the overwhelmingly Cub-centric crowd by throwing in some topical references to his narration ("Half a game out, baby", and "Who would have thought we'd be rooting so hard for Albert Pujols to hit a home run today?"), and in addition to narration, Messmer also sang the National Anthem to begin, "Take Me Out to the Ball Game", and, to the accompaniment of the Ravinia Festival Orchestra, did a dramatic reading of "Casey At The Bat", as well as several other baseball poems, including one of my personal favorites, Bart Giamatti's "The Green Fields of the Mind", which begins with these evocative words:

It breaks your heart. It was designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then, just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.

Many in the crowd were wearing Cub T-shirts and jerseys, though I also saw a Jason Varitek T-shirt and, inexplicably, a Pujols jersey. I've been to classical and pop shows at Ravinia before and this crowd seemed much more like an average group you'd find at a Cubs game (there seemed very few White Sox fans there, though I did spot a couple of A. J. Pierzynski T-shirts).

The conductor of the show was Bob Thompson, whose biography says that his baseball claim to fame is:

that he played trumpet at George Steinbrenner's daughter's wedding, for which George gave him two crisp one-hundred-dollar bills which Bob in turn blew on Yankees' tickets.

And, the guest soloist, Misty Castleberry, sang well-known baseball songs, including "Joltin' Joe DiMaggio", and "Slide, Kelly, Slide", a song written in 1889 about the legendary Mike "King" Kelly, profiled last January as #41 in the Top 100 Cubs of All Time series; the song was not only the first song about baseball to really reach all levels of public consciousness, but may have been the first true "pop culture" hit song ever.

This was an enjoyable evening and for me, an attempt to get my kids somewhat interested in hearing and seeing something other than the music of their own generation. They seemed to enjoy it, although Rachel appeared more interested in the mostly-overpriced merchandise at the gift shop (we didn't buy anything), and though Mark was listening to the music, he spent a fair amount of time playing Tetris on his newly-acquired cellphone.

If "The Baseball Music Project" comes to your town, go see it -- their website doesn't list any performances after May of this year, but I imagine they'll have others this summer and fall.