Ohlsson opens CSO summer at Ravinia with mixed Chopin on a chilly night

Tue Jun 29, 2010 at 11:56 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Photo: Philip Jones Griffiths

It was not a Levine-era choral blockbuster nor a starry soprano that opened the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s summer season under James Conlon Monday night at the Ravinia Festival. Rather the CSO’s variegated weeks led off with a piano-centric Chopin evening mixing concertos and instrumental works featuring one of the festival’s most popular longtime guests, Garrick Ohlsson.

With a temperature decline from the intense humidity of recent days, the lawn was packed with humanity Monday in Highland Park. The cool, breezy evening turned downright cold after sunset, leading some pavilion audience members to bail before the concert had ended.

The large pair of pavilion video screens, introduced last summer, are apparently here to stay, bad news for those who, like me, find them an intrusive visual distraction, but good news for those who find the screens an enhancement of the concert experience (the vast majority of audience members, Ravinia officials claim).

With Chopin’s orchestral works scant, symphony orchestras looking to mark the Polish composer’s 200th birthday season are limited to the two piano concertos, both of which were heard Monday with a pair of solo keyboard works prefacing each.

Ohlsson’s bona fides in this repertoire have been celebrated since his winning the Gold Medal at the Chopin Competition four decades ago. The American pianist is also one of a handful of keyboard artists to have recorded Chopin’s compete piano oeuvre.

The strapping six-foot-four soloist maintains a dexterous and finely honed technique, his big hands able to encompass the considerable digital demands of Chopin’s music with seeming ease.

Still, the Piano Concerto No. 2, which came first, is not an easy work to bring off. In this less overtly virtuosic of the two concertos, the performance was not without its bland moments, particularly in the Maestoso first movement.

The finest Chopin pianists distill an almost jazz-like rubato the better to overcome the rather hoary rum-ti-tum of Chopin’s orchestral writing. One wanted more fire and expressive nuance and Ohlsson didn’t always bring enough fantasy and individuality to overcome the duller moments. The arpeggiated reverie of the Larghetto went better, with the pianist’s refined phrasing aided by David McGill’s lovely bassoon support. Conlon and Ohlsson avoided over-inflating the scherzo-like closing movement, keeping an easy-going stance with a dancing intimacy that benefited the music.

In the First Piano Concerto, which closed the evening, Ohlsson’s playing proved unfailingly responsive, yet too often generalized, with his lyrical approach in the Romanze failing to explore much expressive depth or tonal detailing. The Rondo with its mazurka-like main theme–one of Chopin’s most indelible inspirations—went with considerable panache with Conlon and Ohlsson fine partners in pointing the vivacious melody’s rhythmic ingenuity. Apart from some wounded-duck horn playing by Dale Clevenger, the CSO responded with its usual corporate gleam and facility.

Fine as it may be be for symphonic music, Ravinia’s pavilion is an inhospitable venue for solo piano with the muddy and muted sound likely giving us only half the story of Ohlsson’s two solo works. Here too, performances were mixed with Ohlsson opening the evening with a spacious, thoughtful rendering of the Fantaisie in F minor, followed by a rather laid-back account of the Scherzo No. 2, technically deft but lacking in drama and explosive brilliance.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Ohlsson opens CSO summer at Ravinia with mixed Chopin on a chilly night”

  1. Posted Jun 29, 2010 at 4:03 pm by AA

    Very disappointing performance by Ohlsson playing Choping at Ravinia 6/28/10. He stands and bows like ten pounds of talent in a five pound white jacket. Second, the entire evening felt uninspired. Conlon and CSO were, if possible, even less inspired than Ohlsson. The entire audience were busy keeping warm. I never saw so many security personnel at Ravinia – patrolling for video cameras – very creepy. Has there been a run on black market Ohlsson lately? I doubt it very much.

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