Alsop opens CSO’s Ravinia return with salutes to women and black composers

Sun Jul 11, 2021 at 1:54 pm

By John von Rhein

Marin Alsop conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s opening weekend concerts at the Ravinia Festival. Photo: Patrick Gipson/Ravinia Festival

With the celebratory thwacks of bass drum and timpani that open Joan Tower’s Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No. 1, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra made it thunderously clear on Friday evening that it was back in business at Ravinia.

The Copland-esque rhythmic punch of Tower’s salute to her musical sisterhood was well chosen, for a number of reasons, to begin the CSO’s first performance away from Orchestra Hall since the orchestra suspended public concerts in March 2020 as the Covid-19 lockdown shuttered venues in Chicago and around the world. It also marked the Ravinia concert debut of conductor Marin Alsop in her role as the festival’s chief conductor and curator, leading three weeks of CSO performances this summer.

Could there be any doubt the Chicago musicians were itching to make music in front of an actual (as opposed to a laptop-streamed) audience? Their eagerness proved contagious. Ovations were long and loud for Alsop’s two weekend events. With mask and distancing restrictions eased, pavilion seats and lawn areas were relatively well occupied both nights, although mid-concert showers on Saturday sent lawn denizens scurrying for cover.   

Friday’s kickoff for the CSO’s six-week residency found the orchestra clearing its collective throat in standard repertory by Mozart and Beethoven, sounding a bit rough in spots but conspicuously engaged.

The musical agenda on Saturday spoke to Alsop’s curatorial advocacy and the interesting repertory directions in which her tenure could take the festival’s symphonic programming. All five works were Midwest premieres and/or first performances by the CSO and at Ravinia—new or unfamiliar music by living American woman composers Laura Karpman and Stacy Garrop, and African-American composers Carlos Simon and James P. Johnson.

The orchestra’s North Shore summer retreat is an ideal place for such imaginative excursions off the beaten musical track; one looks forward to more of them now that Alsop, the newly named music director laureate of the Baltimore Symphony, has made Ravinia her American base.

Both Karpman’s All American and Garrop’s The Battle for the Ballot play around with traditional sounds of American patriotism, albeit with a feminist spin.

Premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl in 2019, the Karpman five-minute anthem transmogrifies patriotic songs by American female composers history has forgotten—Mildred J. Hill (who co-wrote the ubiquitous song Happy Birthday), Emily Wood Bower and Anita Owen. Karpman, a Los Angeles-based composer with five Emmy awards to her credit, aptly describes All American as “big, bold, brash, percussive and propulsive.” The noisy percussion battery literally includes a kitchen sink, along with domestic tools like baking sheets and meat tenderizers that used to define so many women’s lives in the past. Karpman is big on quirky rhythmic dislocations, and her five-minute fanfare is all the more engaging for it.

The fight for women’s suffrage forms the historical background of the Evanston-based Garrop’s Battle for the Ballot, for female narrator and chamber orchestra. In her spoken introduction and program note the composer stated that the 19th Amendment did not end the fight for universal suffrage, and that other laws continued to deny black women the right to vote until Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Garrop’s 15-minute opus was receiving its live-concert premiere, having been first presented online by the Cabrillo (Cal.) Festival of Contemporary Music last August. 

Long stretches of lyrical stillness darken to a turbulent climax before the optimistic close. There is little here musically that mid-century moderns like Copland and Schuman didn’t do better. But what made the piece for this listener was the powerful narration delivered by Chicago-based actor Jaye Ladymore, declaiming actual words of resistance by seven key suffragists, black and white, accompanied by projected images of old photographs of speeches and protest marches.

The Atlanta-born, Georgetown University-based Simon was represented by his Fate Now Conquers (2020), for chamber orchestra. Simon uses a theme from the slow movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony to create a series of gestures—post-minimalist churning in the strings, dramatic swells of brass and percussion—to represent what he calls “the unpredictable ways of fate.” (The title refers to a defiant quotation in one of Beethoven’s notebooks.) Alsop turned the baton over to Jonathan Rush, assistant conductor of the Baltimore Symphony, the first of several rising young conductors she will be championing at Ravinia. He did extremely well for himself in front of the CSO, leading a brawny and assured reading that drew a resounding whoop of approval from an audience apparently heavily populated with his fans.

Concluding the interval-less program was a pair of golden oldies, Johnson’s Harlem Symphony (1932) and mid-‘40s Victory Stride.

Largely forgotten today, the composer-pianist was arguably the most important African-American musician in New York in the 1920s, having pioneered the jazz style known as stride piano and written the iconic ‘20s song Charleston. Both his musical travelogue of Harlem neighborhoods and the wartime anthem incorporate jazz elements within the European classical tradition. The symphony is in fact a five-section suite highlighted by a lushly melodic “Song of Harlem” Jerome Kern would have been proud of, and a fervent “Baptist Mission” finale that’s essentially a syncopated passacaglia on a gospel hymn.

Light Americana of this quality is made to order for summer music fests, and Alsop and friends fairly rocked Ravinia Park with their jazzy jamming. More Johnson, please. 


The chief distinction of Friday’s concert was the return of pianist Jorge Federico Osorio as soloist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major (K.488). It marked the 10th festival appearance of the Mexican-born, Highland Park-based artist, and while his account of Mozart’s most popular keyboard concerto did not efface memories of his most inspired performances at Ravinia, it nevertheless proved a finely poised reminder of why he’s esteemed as one of today’s most cultivated pianists.

The effortless control and fluidity, purling runs, supple phrasing and clear articulations that have long marked pianist’s dignified classicism were on full display, as was the beautiful tone he elicited from Ravinia’s recently acquired Hamburg Steinway grand piano. Pacing was brisk and urgent in the outer movements, Osorio relaxing into the limpid cantabile of the central Adagio. If the reading lacked the nth degree of spontaneity, it floated nicely on the cool night air. Alsop and the orchestra were attentive partners. It wasn’t the soloist’s fault that the dialogues between piano and winds in the slow movement fell less than ingratiatingly on the ear.

The cessation of public concerts last summer at Ravinia of course prevented the CSO from honoring the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. The orchestra made partial amends with a taut, lean, firmly centered Beethoven Seventh Symphony on Friday. Alsop enforced proper rhythmic snap while harnessing the corporate might and commitment of the CSO to serve the score’s propulsive energies. At times the players seemed to be still feeling their way as a truly cohesive ensemble, with minor balance problems and a stray brass blooper or two, nothing serious. Still and all, it was good to have the orchestra back in festival harness.

Alsop’s CSO residency will continue with concerts July 16-18. Orchestra concerts continue through Aug. 15;

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