Wang’s flashy Brahms falls short while Bringuier makes impressive podium debut in CSO’s Ravinia opener

Wed Jul 12, 2017 at 11:54 am

By Tim Sawyier

Yuja Wang performed Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 with Lionel Bringuier and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival.
Yuja Wang performed Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 with Lionel Bringuier and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Tuesday night at the Ravinia Festival. Photo: Ravinia/Patrick Gipson

The Ravinia Festival pavilion was packed on Tuesday night for the opening program of the  Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s annual summer residency.

The first orchestral program of the summer in Highland Park shined the spotlight on two 30-year-olds: French conductor Lionel Bringuier, who was making his CSO debut, and Chinese pianist Yuja Wang in her first appearance on Ravinia’s main stage. And though the same chronological age, Bringuier and Wang demonstrated markedly different levels of musical maturity.

The first half was devoted to Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 with Wang as solo protagonist. Bringuier heeded the opening movement’s Maestoso marking, taking a probing approach to the work’s introduction, though Wang seemed less attuned to Brahms’ expansive breadth. Her treatment of the restless piano entrance was loud and literal, and the noble second theme sounded perfunctory in her rendition, especially set against the elevated playing of the musicians under Bringuier.

Wang’s unsurpassed technique allowed her to flick off the first movement’s stormier technical passages seemingly without effort, which, unfortunately, made them come off as merely glib rather than tempestuous.  

Brahms indicated the concerto’s Adagio was a “tender portrait” of Clara Schumann, with whom he had a long, complex and ambiguous relationship. Wang’s interpretation lacked much expressive nuance, however, with subtle harmonic shifts elided and phrases shaped in an arbitrary fashion. The closing Rondo came off best, with Wang creating some belated sparks in the unambiguously jubilant coda.

Wang offered two encores that were in her wheelhouse of pyrotechnical kitsch: Bizet/Horowitz’s Carmen Fantasie (based on the opera’s “Danse Bohème”) and Fazil Say’s jazz-inflected retooling of Arcadi Volodos’ transcription of Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca from K. 331. Following a work as profound as the Brahms’ D-Minor concerto with such fluff suggested a deficit of taste and proportion.

Photo: Ravinia/Patrick Gipson
Photo: Ravinia/Patrick Gipson

The concert’s second half was devoted to Ravel’s well-worn 1922 orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Bringuier led a compellingly spastic “Gnomus” and an atmospheric “Il vecchio castello,” the latter adorned with an eloquent saxophone solo . The work’s livelier character pieces—“Tuileries,” “Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells,” and “The Market Place at Limoges”—were vital and dynamic, and the mournful euphonium in “Bydlo” benefited from Michael Mulcahy’s burnished tone.

The CSO brass lent their inimitable force to “Catacombs” creating an impressive sonic wall, and Bringuier brought almost unhinged energy to “Baba Yaga.” The young Frenchman opted for a refreshingly fast clip in “The Great Gate of Kiev,” which allowed him to pull back the tempo to great effect in the movement’s delicate wind chorales before driving the work home to an emphatic conclusion.

Violinist Joshua Bell will join conductor Andrey Boreyko and the CSO 8 p.m. Wednesday for Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, and Boreyko will also conduct music from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet.


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2 Responses to “Wang’s flashy Brahms falls short while Bringuier makes impressive podium debut in CSO’s Ravinia opener”

  1. Posted Jul 12, 2017 at 1:37 pm by Alex Williams

    Who was playing principal trumpet on this show? Thanks!

  2. Posted Jul 12, 2017 at 4:19 pm by Tim Sawyier

    Alex–Mark Ridenour was playing principal trumpet.

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