Trains, planes and rough-edged Mahler at Ravinia

Thu Jul 23, 2015 at 2:34 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

James Conlon conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Wednesday night at the Ravinia Festival. Photo: Patrick Gipson
James Conlon conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Wednesday night at the Ravinia Festival. Photo: Patrick Gipson

On a perfect summer evening James Conlon opened his final season as music director of the Ravinia Festival, leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Wednesday night in the same program with which he made his Highland Park debut in 1976: Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23.

Both composers have given Ravinia audiences some of Conlon’s most memorable events over his 11-year tenure, as the conductor noted in his nostalgic, characteristically gracious stage remarks. Yet despite some worthy moments, Wednesday’s concert failed to rise to the occasion, through no fault of Ravinia’s out-going music director.

It’s a given that an amplified al fresco performance cannot always offer the dynamic subtleties of an indoor venue. The opening pages of Mahler’s epic canvas were both louder and more matter of fact than ideal, missing the tension and concentration of nature awakening (though the resident cicadas did their part).

The Union Pacific North Line failed to cooperate as well. The Metra train slowly pulled into the Ravinia station just as Conlon was about to open the third movement; after several long minutes it then took its time before pulling out again, eliciting humorous remarks from Conlon that broke up the front string stands. Seconds after the train finally departed and Conlon started the music, a noisy plane buzzed overhead. Principal bass Alexander Hanna was unruffled, rendering his minor-key solo with apt dirge-like expression.

The main problem was the orchestra’s uneven playing, which showed a jarring lack of polish and technical aplomb.

We get that short rehearsal time at Ravinia can lead to more unruly moments that one expects after a week of downtown rehearsal during the regular season. But the repeated brass mishaps, wayward wind tuning, and just plain sloppy playing heard Wednesday night were far below the level we expect from the CSO, even under summer conditions. There appeared to be more than the usual number of summer ringers in the ranks, which likely accounted for many of the ensemble misfires.

Fortunately, the Mahler bona fides of Conlon and the core CSO roster were strong enough to get most of the important things right. The opening movement’s shimmering climax had all due splendor and impact, and cellos and basses dug into the Scherzo in spirited fashion, delivering the movement’s jaunty, nautical elan.

If the wide expressive contrasts of the third movement could have been more fully realized and differentiated, the performance rose to the final section in worthy style. The turbulent opening burst was explosive and Conlon paced the alternation of lyricism and roiling drama with fine skill, leading to a resounding, triumphant coda, the eight horns rising to their feet, as requested by Mahler in the score.

The pavilion amplification, which Michael Cameron complained about last week, seemed more dexterously balanced Wednesday. The one exception was the timpani, which was either harshly overmiked, and/or artificially boosted at climaxes. This is Gustav Mahler, not Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

The Mozart concerto that opened the evening was similarly problematic. For most of the performance Garrick Ohlsson offered a graceful and amiable reading though other pianists have brought more probing depth of feeling to the Adagio and greater vivacity to the finale.

The veteran soloist’s technical lapses seemed to take a page from the maladroit orchestral playing in the concerto introduction. After a few minor digital slips, Ohlsson had a serious memory lapse near the end of the final movement that almost stopped the performance. Fortunately, the pianist got back on track and finished with the orchestra but it was a scary moment, even sitting in the audience.

James Conlon conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra 8 p.m. Thursday in Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, excerpts from Mussorgsky’s Khovantschina, and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with soloist Lise de la Salle.

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