CSO, stars shine in 75th season opener at Ravinia
Updated: August 12, 2011 4:32PM
There is always a certain magic surrounding the first weekend of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s residency at the Ravinia Festival.
This year marks the 75th summer the orchestra has spent at the leafy Highland Park enclave, so the three opening concerts July 7, 8 and 9 were decked out with A-list soloists — pianists Lang Lang and Andre Watts, and soprano Deborah Voigt. On the podium was Maestro Christoph Eschenbach, who was the festival’s music director from 1994 to 2003 and has been welcomed frequently as guest conductor since then.
The sparkling repertoire for the series highlighted the remarkable skill and virtuosity of the CSO, which shone uneclipsed by the star power sharing the stage.
On July 7 the orchestral showpiece was the massive “Symphonie fantastique” by Berlioz, a rapturous Romantic work from 1830, which one contemporary critic called “movie music before there were movies.”
It was the initial selection in the festival’s “One Score, One Chicago” outreach and education program, which started in 2003 with the goal of increasing music appreciation among public school students.
Eschenbach conducted without a score and the CSO was in top form. Concertmaster Robert Chen and his shining violins played with ravishing beauty, and the cellos brought a satiny luster to the dark passages, of which there were many, as this tragic tale of unrequited love unfolded.
Standouts were principal flute Mathieu Dufour, clarinetist John Bruce Yeh, and Scott Hostetler, whose English horn intoned the idee fixe, signifying the Beloved, with whom the protagonist (actually the composer himself) was obsessed. The CSO brass, trumpets and trombones, masterfully accompanied the young love-sick man’s “March to the Gallows.”
Death did not end this vast piece. The finale was the fierce “Dream of the Witches’ Sabbath,” complete with the sonorous, but chilling “Dies Irae,” the Gregorian theme from the Roman Catholic Latin Mass for Dead. First it galloped rhythmically through the winds, then was articulated with no uncertainty by the tubas.
Friday night July 8 Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” dominated the second half of the program. It was written initially as a ballet choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe.
From the first notes, the night was punctuated with a growing cacophony of sounds, as if we were watching sprouts burst forth in stop-action photography.
This music, evoking pagan rituals and primitive mysteries, was precise and angular under Eschenbach’s baton. Percussion and muted trumpets, as well as slicing violins and abrupt piercing bass told the story of the young girl chosen to dance herself to death so that spring might come. The violence of the bombastic closing was visceral, demonstrating the artistry of the players and the skill with which Eschenbach harbored their significant resources.
It is mandatory to mention that the dissonant music and the strange awkward off-balance dancing were so disturbing that a riot ensued in Paris during the work’s premiere in 1913. Only cheers, however, greeted this exemplary orchestral performance.
On Saturday July 9, the CSO effortlessly morphed into an opera orchestra, playing the mainly sedate Overture to Wagner’s “Tannhauser” and the glistening “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” from his “Gotterdammerung with subtlety and polish. Eschenbach also led them in the Overture to Beethoven’s “Fidelio,” as well as the “Dance of the Seven Veils” from Richard Strauss’s “Salome,” which shimmered with sensuality.
Soloist was soprano Deborah Voigt, who sang Salome’s deranged aria to the severed head of John the Baptist with bitterness and abandon. She looked beautiful, her blond hair swept up off her face and wearing a long gold and medium blue skirt with matching solid blue top and bolero jacket. In the fall of 2006 Voigt portrayed Salome at Lyric Opera of Chicago with great success and the performance at Ravinia fared well by comparison. She also sang arias from “Tannhauser,” “Die Walkure,” Richard Strauss’s “Elektra,” and “Fidelio.”
At the insistence of the enthusiastic crowd, she favored us with two encores that suited the diva and the summer night: Richard Strauss’s melodic “Zueignung” (“Dedication”), which was simply beyond beautiful, followed by the charming “I Could Have Danced All Night” from “My Fair Lady,” by Lerner and Loewe.
Two pianos, two nights
The juxtaposition of pianists Lang Lang on July 7 and Andre Watts on July 8 had special significance for Ravinia audiences. In 1999 Lang Lang was catapulted to fame as he stepped in on two days notice to replace the ailing Watts. Eschenbach was on the podium when the 17-year-old lad from China delivered Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto as if it had never been heard before.
In honor of the bicentennial of the birth of composer and virtuoso pianist Franz Liszt, superstar Lang Lang played the composer’s First Piano Concerto. Now a ripe old 29 years, he has become a master showman. Thursday night he stretched tempos as if they were rubber bands and took numerous Romantic liberties, aided by Eschenbach’s attentive support. Crowd-pleasing? You bet. Remember Liszt himself was the rock star of his day.
A little Liszt goes a long way, but the next night Andre Watts played the composer’s Second Piano Concerto. Watts is a solid, skillful performer, who has the technique for this repertoire and he played it straight. The concerto many movements are played attaca — without pause — so despite the variety of moods, music was all of a piece. The performance was respectful of the score, thus the composer, a nice contrast to the previous theatrics.
Large screens on each side of the Pavilion stage make it easy to see the soloists up close and personal. That was ideal for the opening weekend, since only about half of the seats in the pavilion provide a decent view of the piano keyboard. With the screens we can see those flying fingers and follow the amazing glissandos as if we were aside the pianist on the bench.
The summer has only truly begun when the CSO takes up its Ravinia residency. The players are here now and will light up the pavilion through Aug. 19. So get going, and hear one of the world’s greatest musical ensembles right in our own back yard.