Ravinia’s gala plumbs deeper notes this year with Beethoven and Copland

Sun Jul 19, 2009 at 7:56 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

The Ravinia Festival’s annual gala concerts have taken myriad forms over the years. In the 1970s and ’80s, James Levine favored massive works for orchestra and chorus. There have been galas celebrating a single artist—pianist Van Cliburn and tenor Placido Domingo among them—and others like the Ravinia Centennial concert in 2004 that trotted out multiple stars.

At this year’s gala, held on Saturday night, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra led by Ravinia’s music director James Conlon offered a program uncannily tailored to the mood of the moment.

On a certain level, the programming was predictable. Ravinia has been making much of the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth this season, so it was no surprise that Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait was on the program (with majestic American soprano Jessye Norman as narrator, no less).  Gala concerts call for festive fanfares, and Copland’s beloved Fanfare for the Common Man certainly fills that bill. And if you want a full house, schedule Beethoven’s Ninth and watch the ticket orders pour in.

But something unpredictable happened when Conlon picked up his baton and the CSO, joined by the Chicago Symphony Chorus and vocal soloists for the Beethoven, launched into this otherwise unremarkable program. These are unsettled times, and, with millions of people in a state of high anxiety over the crumbling economy, it was unexpectedly comforting to hear Copland’s portrait of a strong, determined America and Beethoven’s joyful call for universal brotherhood.

Clearly, Conlon was determined to dig well below the surface of these familiar works. Throughout the evening, he and his musicians played with thoughtful passion. There was no sentimentality in the Copland pieces and no hint of bombast or grandiosity in Beethoven’s monumental symphony.

Led by the burnished trumpet of principal Christopher Martin, the spacious melodies of Fanfare for the Common Man unfolded in commanding waves. Lincoln Portrait was equally reflective. Conlon shaped Copland’s often somber music expertly, prompting magical shifts from full-throated orchestral outpourings to a single, open-hearted woodwind or horn solo. Resplendent in a raspberry gown, Norman was a passionate, often stern, narrator. But her speaking voice, though large and assured, didn’t have the resonance and depth that can make Lincoln Portrait so moving.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, with its shifts between dark brooding and unrestrained delight, brimmed with orchestral color. The opening movement’s brief, emphatic phrases brought to mind Mahler’s symphonies with their sense of nature stirring and stumbling to life. In the symphony’s martial moments, the CSO sounded both crisp and youthfully rambunctious.

The quartet—soprano Erin Wall, mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, tenor Anthony Dean Griffey and bass Morris Robinson—along with the Chicago Symphony Chorus added their own sense of youthful energy.  Robinson’s dark-hued bass was remarkably clear, giving his solos a compelling mix of heft and lightness. Griffey sounded vigorous and expansive, his performance offering a hint of heldentenor breadth. All four soloists effortlessly rode the musical waves, even when the orchestra and chorus were surging full steam ahead. With its precise phrasing and ability to weave supple, lyrical lines, the chorus rattled the heavens.       

No doubt lively debate will continue over Ravinia’s decision this season to project close-up shots of the onstage action on huge screens flanking the pavilion stage. Some find them distracting, and they may indeed be difficult to ignore depending on your vantage point.  But I found them surprisingly neutral on Saturday night, easy to tune out or watch closely as one pleased. Being able to check the screens for those visuals was a pleasure, and the screens were also handy for English supertitles, though I missed having both German and English texts available for Schiller’s Ode to Joy.

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