“Walk up to Grič at night and, as if from a mysterious phonograph, you will receive the message of the city, soil, people…”
With these words by Antun Gustav Matoš, the most famous chronicler Zagreb has ever had, the audience of the very first Grič Evenings, which started on 1 July 1982, was welcomed at each of the twenty-six concerts in the programme booklet. In the early 1980s, the Upper Town was the true centre of the city, the site of the theatre, art and club scene, despite the fact that this layered urban area called for renovation. A further step, in an effort to make the popular Gradec even more vibrant as the cultural quarter, was the conversion of the former Jesuit monastery next to the Church of St. Catherine in order for it to house the Mimara collection. This collection was, however, housed elsewhere, and the converted lot (a project criticised for failing to comply with conservation principles) has become – and has remained after all these years – a must-see stop of fine art in Zagreb, initially named the Museum Centre, then the Klovićevi dvori Gallery (since 1996). The building’s atrium has also been home to the Grič Evenings for decades, making it the heart of summer concert life in Zagreb.
With the end of the traditional season in mid-June, music life moves out of the usual concert venues and reaches a wider audience in festival format. Up to the 1980s such events were typical for the coast, which had many musical events with different programme concepts and artistic scope, all of which revived several historic sites. With the founding of the Grič Evenings, Zagreb also appeared on this summer map of Croatia and Yugoslavia, establishing thus an impressive link between the previous and the next season. It should also be noted that the Evenings is inspired by an even older Zagreb tradition of summer concerts that had existed at least since 1961, though under different names (Matoš Evenings, Zagreb Summer Evenings, Zagreb Summer). At any rate, a new festival was born on 1 July 1982, organised by Zagreb Concert Management led by Miroslav Poljanec. The festival began with a concert performance of Vatroslav Lisinski’s opera Porin, and the atrium of Klovićevi dvori reverberated with music until the end of August, with some “deviations” from classical music, like the evenings of Arsen Dedić’s chansons or a concert of traditional Indian music.
The ambitious upswing, both in the quantity and quality of the programme, continued during the second edition of the festival in 1983, which began a little earlier, in mid-June. Although there were more chanson evenings (Ivo Robić, Tomislav Ivčić and others), the festival kept on cultivating a high profile of classical music. Compelling programmes and guest appearances of foreign artists have contributed equally to the festival’s reputation (there were, for example, the appearances of the Sofia Soloists and pianist Mikhail Pletnev, then a twenty-year old at the start of his world-class career who came back to Grič repeatedly). By the late 1980s, the number of concerts increased, so that the Evenings had two programme booklets for the first and second part of the festival, and there was an equal share of concerts held in the atrium of Klovićevi dvori and the nearby Church of St. Catherine (it must be noted here that the sponsored content several times surpassed the descriptions of the concert programme, which seems incredulous today).
In the 1990s, the festival continued on the same scale, but the programmes took place all over the city (in addition to the already used Church of St. Catherine, new venues included the Museum of Arts and Crafts, as well as the Vatroslav Lisinski Concert Hall). As a result, the Grič Evenings ceased to be an independent festival and in 1991 became part of Zagreb Music Summer, which in turn became Zagreb Summer Festival the following year. This cluster of several similar festivals was organised by Zagreb Concert Management: in addition to the Grič Evenings, there were also the Zagreb Cathedral Organ and the International Folklore Festival, and for a short while also the Histrion Summer. Within this wider festival scope, the Evenings retained the programme concept that began in the early 1980s, regularly welcoming ensembles from Zagreb, such as the Zagreb Soloist, Zagreb Quartet and others bearing the city’s name. The international aspect was also prominent, as it was during the early years, and Zagreb Concert Management’s experienced team brought, as guests, leading foreign soloists and ensembles. There were also specialised programmes, such as “the festival within the festival” dedicated to the opus of Ivan pl. Zajc (1992), and certain genres, such as operetta, were given an important place.
At the beginning of the new millennium, an impressive number of concerts held over the two summer months continued, while the festival itself once again changed its name to Zagreb Summer Evenings. However, the event was renamed in 2004 and (for the first time in its then decades-long history) its programme outline was scaled down. The Zagreb Baroque Festival was founded to “continue [as noted at the opening ceremony] the tradition of Zagreb Summer Evenings” or, more precisely, the Grič Evenings. Up to 2006, under the charge of Saša Britvić, the director of Zagreb Concert Management at the time, the entire programme was devoted to historically conscious baroque performances. During these years, naturally, there were a great number of appearances by foreign artists, the editions were devoted to partner countries, and the local baroque scene has fortunately matured sufficiently to carry out a significant portion of the programme.
In 2007, the festival returned to the name it had at the beginning of the 21st century –Zagreb Summer Evenings – but not to its original concept. Over the following years, programme policy has deviated significantly from previous concepts: the bulk of the programme was comprised of more popular genres, such as jazz, rock, ethno and various denominations of world music. Still, classical music did not disappear from this repositioning on the festival map of Croatia; moreover, since 2012, it has again become the core of the programme. As it was not possible to hold as many concerts as in the “golden” 1980s and 1990s, the festival has recently narrowed its scope to about a dozen concerts (at most). It should be mentioned here that the festival took this path mainly because of the foundation of other summer festivals in Zagreb, even though the Evenings still welcomed more prominent guests – in recent years, Les Vents Français and Les Arts Florissants. Fortunately, Klovićevi dvori suffered no structural damage after the earthquake that hit Zagreb in 2020, unlike other concert venues in the city, and the open-air concerts even braved the current pandemic situation. Besides, the concerts in this edition are the best inducement to walk frequently to Grič during the first half of July. Exactly forty years after the opening of the first Evenings, the Zagreb Soloists will perform with pianist Lovro Marušić. The high quality of music will be upheld by the Dialogos Ensemble, Zagreb Wind Ensemble, piano duo Danijel and Ljubomir Gašparović, Russian pianist Andrey Gugnin and the Eusebius Trio. All these outstanding artists from the national and international classical music scene will mark with dignity this important anniversary of the Grič Evenings.
The historical amplitudes of the Evenings, the conceptual wanderings and name changes are not uncommon for events of such a long history – they are in fact a testimony that the festival lives, grows, develops and changes with time. Its changes and occasional distinctive programme structure have shown that the Grič Evenings is not afraid to embark on a new exploration of musical genres because – and Matoš would surely agree – it is only by wandering that we discover the hidden charm of Grič and the music that is woven into its identity after four decades. On another occasion, Matoš wrote that at night “there is no tone on Grič that would disturb the harmony of the impression”. Despite the “mysterious phonograph” in which the festival founders recognised the prophetic presage of the Grič Evenings, not even Matoš could guess that the city he wrote poems about (but also heavily criticised), would alluringly resound with music during the summer months without disturbing – in spite of its diversity – the harmony of his and our Upper Town.
Matko Matija Marušić