Two young pianists spotlighted in CSO’s American program at Ravinia

Mon Jul 12, 2010 at 2:49 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Leonard Bernstein in New York

The Ravinia Festival may be the less adventurous of Chicago’s two summer festivals, but give credit where it’s due. Sunday night’s piano-centric program served up a program of American music that centered on the obligatory Bernstein-Copland-Gershwin trifecta, yet managed to offer a pair of less frequently heard works, which included one of the finest performances of the summer.

Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, The Age of Anxiety, is inspired by Auden’s poem about a group of lost souls in 1950s New York and their nightlong search for meaning. Like many Bernstein works, it is episodic and a bit too earnest, but in the right hands, the mix of lyric delicacy and boisterous urban jazz is hard to resist.

One reason, The Age of Anxiety rarely comes off is because cost-conscious orchestras are often content to use their own pianist rather than engaging a guest artist, since despite the piano part’s flash and technical demands, the work remains a symphony and not a full-fledged solo concerto.

Joyce Yang

James Conlon led a bracing, emotionally rich performance of Bernstein’s symphony Sunday night, which benefited immensely by having the gifted young Joyce Yang as keyboard protagonist. Silver Medal winner of the 2005 Van Cliburn Competition, the Korean pianist was fully in synch with Bernstein’s genre-crossing style, bringing deep, concentrated expression to the reflective episodes and a rollicking sassy swing to the jazzy syncopations of the Masque.

Conlon is among our finest Bernstein conductors, and he drew playing that balanced the urban loneliness—as in the wonderful wind playing of the introduction—with the driving populist music. The performance culminated in a coda that felt just right, conveying a sense of catharsis and Bernstein’s stoic lyric strength without going over the top.

George Gershwin’s Concerto in F–still the finest and the most audaciously indigenous of American piano concertos—was clearly meant as a slam-bang finale Sunday, but Yang’s bravura proved a tough act to follow.

Orion Weiss

Orion Weiss is a gifted pianist but Gershwin’s flamboyant concerto requires an outsized personality, and too often Weiss’s pallid playing felt stiff and inhibited in music that calls for more swagger. Set against the boisterous bravado of the CSO’s soupd-up jazz-age playing under Conlon, Weiss’s playing sounded even more dull and, frequently, inaudible. No lack of personality from the CSO with a nice languid empty-street trumpet solo by Chris Martin, enhanced perhaps by the Crown Royal bag he used as a mute.

Copland’s beloved Appalachian Spring was the centerpiece, and Conlon and the orchestra served up a finely judged performance, conveying the rustic folk expression and rhythmic vitality without overdoing the nostalgic sadness. Superb playing by all with John Bruce Yeh’s clarinet solos first-class.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Two young pianists spotlighted in CSO’s American program at Ravinia”

  1. Posted Jul 13, 2010 at 6:21 am by Observer Doc

    Your review of this wonderful concert is mostly accurate. But my perceptions differ from your dismissive comments about the Gershwin. I agree that the Bernstein piece, rarely heard, was fresh and exciting. But in fact all of the music was gloriously and emotionally American–as shown by the audience’s enthusiasm. Ravinia was swept to its feet with a final standing ovation for the second fresh and exciting pianist–Orion Weiss. Your description of the concerto in F is dismissive, and it shouldn’t be. The piece was played beautifully and with great faithfulness tot the thrilling moments of jazzy revelation that Gershwin created!

    Though not orchestrated by Ferde Grofe (like Rhapsody in Blue), Concerto in F is known to be “over-orchestrated”– piano passages marked pianissimo might have more meaning with a jazz orchestra, than with the CSO’s “boisterous bravado”. But in fact the playing was gloriously virtuosic–and brought the audience to the emotional heart–the hope and optimism–found deep in the music. Weiss’ easy virtuosity was most apparent in his magnificent interpretation. He finessed the merger with the orchestra’s full strings and brass as a jazz collaboration, not a meaningless competition about who could be louder.

    Though evening brought trilling cicadas which loudly accompanied the orchestra, and and a light rain forced the guests on the lawn to struggle with their picnic baskets and umbrellas, it was a perfect summer evening of American music–from first to final note.

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