After a long absence, Dudamel and CSO strike sparks in Beethoven

Thu Jul 19, 2018 at 3:17 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Gustavo Dudamel conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in an all-Beethoven program Wednesday at the Ravinia Festival. Photo: Patrick Gipson/Ravinia

The ongoing celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s centennial is the dominant leitmotif musically and visually this year at the Ravinia Festival. Large banners of the American composer-conductor’s visage greet audience members as they enter the main gate of the Highland Park grounds.

Wednesday’s night’s concert took a break from the annum’s Lenny-mania for an all-Beethoven program. Standard summer repertory it may be, but the evening held greater interest than usual with Gustavo Dudamel making his Ravinia debut as well as leading his first Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert in nine years. (Dudamel conducted pairs of CSO subscription programs in 2007 and 2009.)

Dudamel’s recently extended contract as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic runs through 2022–the same year Muti’s CSO contract expires—making the event even more noteworthy for those playing the inevitable what-if game of Musical Podiums.

Dudamel’s PR photos often show the 37-year-old conductor grinning widely or with ecstatic expressions, his copious hair taking flight in various configurations mid-performance.

So, it was a bit surprising–and rather refreshing–to see the celebrated Venezuelan adopt a low-key podium approach to his collaboration with the CSO. Dudamel was a gracious and quietly charismatic presence, almost business-like with no Bernsteinian stage histrionics. His baton style is minimalist–alert and economical, leading with graceful, flowing motions and clear cueing.

The program led off with the Egmont Overture. As heard from the back section of the pavilion, Dudamel led a taut and concentrated Egmont, with transparent textures that served the drama well–an extra bit of timpani at tuttis, raspy horns cutting through textures with bite, and a real sense of release and heroic exultation in the closing bars.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1–his second to be composed, but first published–was the evening’s centerpiece with Yuja Wang as soloist. The Chinese pianist eschewed her usual microbial club dress for a white, skintight gown Wednesday night. Making her way to the piano, Wang tripped as her high heels got tangled in her long dress but gracefully recovered and laughed it off.

Yuja Wang performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 Wednesday night. Photo: Patrick Gipson / Ravinia

Wang cancelled five dates this past May due to illness but there was no signs of any lingering infirmity in her stainless-steel Beethoven. Her technique remains one of the most complete in the business and Wang threw off all the runs and digital challenges with customary panache and near-faultless articulation.

But power and a flashy technique only get you so far in Beethoven. Wang’s cadenza in the first movement was predictably dazzling but overall her brand of steely, aggressive virtuosity felt too relentless for the music. There was little sense of rustic charm and the jazzy, antic wit of the Rondo–Beethoven’s most delightful concerto finale–was raced through as if speed and bravura were the primary objectives, leaving most of the musical humor and back-and-forth interplay in the dust.

Surprisingly, Wang was at her best in the Largo, tracing the sweet-sad introspection of the main theme with a delicate touch and simple, yielding tenderness. Dudamel and the musicians lent superb support throughout, with exquisite clarinet contributions by John Bruce Yeh.

The Symphony No. 7 closed the evening. It’s next to impossible to find fresh illumination in a Beethoven cornerstone like this–though Manfred Honeck managed to do so in his memorable 2014 performances with CSO. 

Dudamel’s Beethoven didn’t rise to that level of insight, but this was an impressive and idiomatic Seventh nonetheless, with an admirable rapport evident between conductor and orchestra after nearly a decade’s absence.

The outer movements went with great rhythmic vivacity as well as clarity of balancing, the music consistently energized yet kept on a tight rein by the conductor.

Most striking was the Allegretto where Dudamel and colleagues explored a stately, dark-hued depth of expression. The finely calibrated dynamics and hushed string playing at the coda made this summer Beethoven feel anything but routine.

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