Pianist Vondráček delivers fresh and individual Beethoven in CSO debut

Sun Jul 18, 2021 at 1:39 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Lukáš Vondráček performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 with Marin Alsop conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Saturday night at Ravinia. Photo: Kyle Dunleavy

Two repertory cornerstones framed a Latin showpiece at Saturday night’s Ravinia concert with Marin Alsop conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

The populist weekend program in the Highland Park summer series attracted a respectable crowd in the pavilion and on the lawn. As at the Grant Park Music Festival, nearly all the non-wind musicians remained masked though a few string players bucked the trend.

Box office-friendly concerto warhorses still feature prominently at Ravinia under Marin Alsop, the festival’s new “chief conductor and curator.” The North Shore audience likes to hear their favorites and veteran concertgoers persevere in the hope that lightning will strike and a performance of a much-played concerto will rise above the pleasant, solid but usually unmemorable summer standard.

Oddly, that’s exactly what happened Saturday night with Lukáš Vondráček delivering an uncommonly fresh and rewarding rendition of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in his CSO debut. 

Vondráček appeared at Ravinia in 2002 as a promising 15-year-old. It took nearly two decades for his return, but the Czech pianist, now 34, has clearly grown into a mature artist as shown by his individual, occasionally quirky yet always compelling take on the “Emperor.”

Technically, the soloist was polished and immaculate throughout. The cascading opening volleys were rendered with focused precision and the most demanding passages of the opening movement proved faultless in execution, the good-natured drama buoyant and freshly spun. 

Yet Vondráček brought a subtle, singular approach to a work usually played for volume and bravado. He employed an exceedingly wide dynamic range and brought a fantasia style to every solo moment. Nothing was outrageous or out of scale yet each entrance had one consistently leaning forward in anticipation (and curiosity) as to what he might do next.

Vondráček’s eschewing of rubato in the hymn-like Adagio verged on plink-plank-plunk yet even here it made for a novel approach to music often indulgently stretched out of period. 

The Rondo finale was simply terrific. Beethoven’s well-worn musical jokes have grown stale by repetition but Vondráček and Alsop made each quirky turn around the gate seem newly engaging and delightful, the soloist adding a little topspin each time.

Alsop was a superb accompanist for her keyboard colleague and the CSO were also at their finest. The orchestra musicians were clearly energized by their Czech soloist as the smiles and enthusiastic stand-tapping bow applause indicated.

The evening opened with Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin. The composer’s homage (originally for piano) to his Baroque compatriot also honors friends of Ravel who died in the First World War. 

The Rigaudon finale came off with due esprit and vitality but otherwise this was a rushed and charmless reading of music that needs more subtle and nuanced direction to blossom. William Welter’s piquant oboe solos were a bright spot amid the prevailing blandness.

The flashy orchestral showpiece is more in Alsop’s wheelhouse as was shown with the concert’s centerpiece, Alberto Ginastera’s Variaciones concertantes. Written in 1953, the Argentinian composer’s set of folk-flavored variations is a de facto Concerto for Orchestra with brilliant solo opportunities aplenty for first-desk players.

Happily, nearly all of the CSO principals were on duty. Cellist John Sharp launched the performance with an evocative if pitchy rendering of the theme from which the ensuing variations follow. Stephen Williamson, no surprise, served up an audacious and rollicking account of his Scherzo turn. Violist Li-Kuo Chang brought apt gravitas to his drammatica solo, and Welter and Keith Buncke were graceful partners in the oboe-bassoon duo. 

Associate concertmaster Stephanie Jeong brought dervish agility to her moto perpetuo variation, David Cooper lofted an aptly pastoral horn solo, and bass Alexander Hanna brought a sense of coming full circle in his elegant reprise of the opening theme.

Alsop was fully in her element here—bringing out the primary colors, keeping the work on track while giving the players space for their spotlit moments, and rounding off the performance with a propulsive dash to the coda.

Marin Alsop leads the CSO in a gala concert with vocalist Cynthia Erivo 6 p.m. Sunday at Ravinia. ravinia.org 

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