Fried swansong proves a moving occasion at Ravinia

Sun Jul 16, 2023 at 12:44 pm

By Tim Sawyier

Miriam Fried performed Brahms’ Violio Concerto with Marin Alsop and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Saturday night at Ravinia. Photo: Kyle Dunleavy/Ravinia Festival

Miriam Fried is a force of nature. Born in 1946, her victories at the 1968 Paganini Contest and 1971 Queen Elisabeth International Competition vaulted her to a storied solo career in which she appeared with practically all of the world’s major orchestras.

Unlike many with such an early high-profile career, Fried has also been passionately devoted to education, helping to cultivate the next generation of elite violinists. The Ravinia Steans Music Institute, of which she has been the director for the past 30 years, has been one locus of this pedagogical work. Fried is retiring from her position there at the end of this summer, handing off the reins to Midori, and Ravinia is having a month-long celebration in honor of her tenure.

A highlight of this farewell was Fried’s swansong performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto with Marin Alsop and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Saturday night. Fried’s performance was fearless, and conveyed the sort of wisdom that only comes from a lifetime lived with a score. While her technique and intonation may have lost a step over the decades, this did not detract from the overall impression of sage assertion.

After the spacious introduction, adorned with fine contributions from the CSO winds, Fried made a blistering entrance that set the tone for the Allegro non troppo. She brought an achingly wistful quality to the movement’s second theme, and her pacing of the Joachim cadenza sounded organically spontaneous.

William Welter’s solo in the Adagio floated luminously above the warm tonal bed of his wind colleagues, and from there Fried searchingly elaborated the movement’s pining quality. She projected the Hungarian flair of the closing Allegro giocoso, where again fitful pitchy moments did not compromise her compelling vision for the score. It is well worth watching some of her Steans masterclasses on YouTube, as in these she conveys verbally and in great detail the musical understanding she demonstrated in this Brahms. Alsop led a responsive accompaniment that allowed Fried’s intentions to shine through.

Alsop then led Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 for the second half. She took a measured approach to the Andante opening, and brought out the restless quality of the ensuing Allegro con anima. While at times this captured the movement’s surging aspects, at others it felt like a mannered focus on small gestures at the expense of larger phrases. Often phrases reached their peaks prematurely, getting stuck at a hectoring dynamic with no room to grow.

One will not hear a finer account of the Andante cantabile’s horn solo than the sadly outgoing principal David Cooper provided Saturday, beginning at an exquisitely soft level that drew listeners to his gorgeous tone. The other solo wind contributions were equally refined here, though again the movement’s explosive moments felt more deafening than robust. Alsop was consistently giving the hand to the brass throughout the performance, though they were simply responding to what she was indicating.

The transparent scoring of the Valse provided a respite from the gas pedal, with more eloquent woodwind phrases. It is hard not to be stirred by the Fifth’s Finale, and while Alsop’s account was a rousing one, again too often balances felt arbitrary and haphazard.

The program opened with the first Ravinia performance of Shulamit Ran’s Chicago Skyline, a brief fanfare for brass and percussion written to WFMT’s 40th anniversary in 1991. Ran was the CSO composer-in-residence from 1990-1997, and on the UChicago faculty from 1973-2015. This score’s dramatic brass wailing and clangorous percussion did indeed give the impression of vast space and architectural proportions, and Ran was on hand in the Pavilion to receive the appreciative applause.

Marin Alsop leads the CSO at Ravinia in songs of Gustav and Alma Mahler, along with the former’s Symphony No. 5, 8 p.m. Wednesday.

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