Osorio’s Beethoven a revelation on every level at Ravinia

Fri Jul 16, 2010 at 1:07 pm

By Dennis Polkow

Jorge Federico Osorio performed three of the five Beethoven piano concertos with James Conlon and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night at Ravinia.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s recent Beethoven Festival is receiving a compact summer cadenza at Ravinia with an opportunity to experience all five Beethoven piano concertos across two consecutive concerts.

Jorge Federico Osorio has long made Highland Park his home, but seemingly had to prove himself the world over before being given his due as a rank concretizer of choice here.. The Mexican-born pianist is the soloist, with Ravinia music director James Conlon conducting, a coup for all involved.

While the downtown festival chose to present Beethoven’s symphonies by juxtaposing the familiar and the less familiar in each concert, the piano concertos are being presented in chronological order.

That meant beginning with No. 2 (the earliest), No. 1 (the first published) and No. 3, on Thursday’s program, which opened the two-night series. The progression revealed the steps that Beethoven took from expansive Classicism to early Romanticism by giving the orchestra an expanded role equal to that of the soloist and making the piano concerto a more personal vehicle of self expression and emotion.

Osorio’s performances of all three concertos proved revelatory on virtually every level.  Though it is often said that early Beethoven concertos are Mozartean, Osorio actually played aspects of them as if they were by Mozart, albeit Mozart experienced through a fun-house mirror.

Particularly fascinating were Osorio’s buoyant ornamentation and rubato, which never intruded but always felt organic and inevitable.  Often pianists feel the need to telegraph the Romanticism to come, but Osorio highlighted Beethoven’s expansions of Classicism with subtlety through timbral and dynamic nuances rather than with hyper-intensified touch or over-pedaling.

Conlon, for his part, supplied Osorio with a well-layered and transparent Beethoven accompaniment that usually sought to emphasize timbre and texture over power and intensity.  (Like Haitink, Conlon conducted a mid-sized orchestra.)

At times, Conlon’s tempo choices seemed initially at odds with Osorio, in that Conlon would begin No. 2 with fortitude and drama but then scale back that approach and let Osorio call the shots in a more nuanced manner after his entrance.  Likewise, Conlon began the opening movements of No. 1 and 3 in a slow and ponderous manner, but would speed up when Osorio clearly wanted a brisker approach.

It was in the middle movements that everything really came together, Osorio and Conlon in complete simpatico and achieving virtual poetry.  Some of the inner dialogues between solo winds and piano actually had Osorio make direct eye contact with specific players to immense effect as if they were playing chamber music.

Not surprisingly, the virtually capacity crowd knew it was experiencing something quite special and the ovations reflected that: immense applause after the Second Piano Concerto and instantaneous standing ovations after No. 1, the best performed of the evening, and again after No. 3.

The cycle will conclude 8 p.m. Friday with performances of Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 and No. 5, the “Emperor.”  www.ravinia.org; (847) 266-5100.

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