August 5: Three Concertos - Three Pianists
Outside of competitions, egos and programming budgets usually prevent audiences from hearing multiple concertos with multiple soloists in one concert. Yesterday's Ravinia program provided a notable exception. The evening combined a presentation of three early piano concertos by three Russian masters with the opportunity to hear three up-and-coming young piano virtuosas side by side.
First off was Joyce Yang in Shostakovich's First Piano Concerto. Despite impeccable technique that should basically allow her to do anything she wants, perhaps out of nervousness Yang started off a bit too reticently in the first two movements. While everything was phrased very musically and went off without a hitch, this was just a tad too restrained for Shostakovich. There was nothing really to complain about in any way, except that the final dose of energy was missing. In the last movement Yang finally seemed comfortable with herself and 'in the zone' and unleashed her blistering technique to maximum effect. In particular, there were some very fast passages played with total control at very low dynamics that were absolutely superb. Also worth noting: Yang interacted wonderfully with the orchestra, making this a nicely coherent interpretation as a whole, albeit a somewhat too polite one. Chris Martin's trumpet solos alone were worth the price of admission.
Next up was Lise de la Salle in Prokofiev's first concerto. This was very impressive pianism throughout. De la Salle bookended her performance with absolutely compelling accounts of the outer two movements. Where the performance did not convince, however, was in the middle movement. Here, de la Salle failed to really maintain a long line across the slow tempo that would have kept both structure and narrative coherent. While de la Salle also has superb technique, her small hands seemed to be a bit of an impediment in the fortissimo bravura octave runs. Her tone just isn't quite big enough when needed. It did not help that the overpowered CSO, notoriously un-controlled by James Conlon, was at its most rambunctious precisely when the score called on de la Salle to produce the biggest sound. She was hopelessly drowned out in those passages. There were also a couple of spots where the orchestra clearly was not sure whether it should follow Conlon or de la Salle. The latter usually managed to adjust more quickly and rescue the situation.
After intermission, Olga Kern presented the Rachmaninov first concerto. Of the three pianists of this evening, Kern is the one whose career has advanced the farthest to date, so I had the greatest expectations from her. But I must say I wasn't really convinced by this performance. Her interpretation was pretty straightforward and not mannered. But I missed any real semblance of line. This was a performance that emphasized the vertical, chordal aspects of the work at the expense of the horizontal, melodic. The result was an oddly spiky interpretation that did not hang together well. Too little cantabile, and Rachmaninov really needs it. Part of the blame definitely again goes to Conlon whose podium presence was basically redundant, as it didn't seem to have much of an effect on the proceedings. This was less of an issue in the Shostakovich with its chamber orchestra dimensions, as well as in the Prokofiev which will basically move if given enough forward momentum. But early Rachmaninov simply requires more attention. The orchestration isn't as successful as in his later works and a competent conductor is really needed to manage balances and the phrasing of secondary voices, otherwise nothing makes sense. Too bad that has become a rare commodity at Ravinia.
July 31: Dream of Gerontius at Millennium Park
This is a bizarre work. In retrospect, I am not sure why I went. It is not just that the peculiarly English Catholicism of Cardinal Neuman's text is odd to say the least - it's a kind of English semi-vernacular recasting of bits of the traditional Catholic requiem mass with the addition of a silly Dante-style narrative of a journey into the underworld and through purgatory. It is also musically such a weird piece. I am not quite sure, for example, what possessed Elgar to represent a dying old man with a tenor and then additionally require him to sing basically in a Heldentenor-style. It makes little sense to me.
In his best works - the violin and cello concertos and the 'Enigma' Variations - Elgar manages to be both musically succinct and dramatically logical. In some of his other output English pastoral pastiche intermingles too freely with ideas that have overstayed their welcome. The Dream of Gerontius to my ears falls into the latter category. While there are gorgeous moments into which Elgar clearly poured a lot of his soul and effort, as a whole it is an unwieldy behemoth even in the best musical hands.
The Grant Park Orchestra under the leadership of its music director Carlos Kalmar acquitted itself superbly in this performance. It is a testament to the excellent symbiosis between Kalmar and his orchestra that these days, during the summer, better orchestral playing and more creative programming can be heard for free downtown than in Highland Park. The Grant Park Orchestra delivered Gerontius not only with technical brilliance and superb ensemble playing but also with appropriately idiomatic English pathos. Mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy, tenor, John Mac Master, and bass Paul Whelan were all well cast in their roles, while the generally solid Grant Park Chorus had its moments of intonational ambiguity as it slogged through this massive two-hour work.
But who's to complain when it's free and the sound system, weather and scenery are superb?
July 26: Lang Lang & Eschenbach @ Ravinia
Lang Lang dropped into Ravinia to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the launch of his international career which took place in this very spot. Joining him on the podium was his accomplice of that fateful event, former Ravinia music director Christoph Eschenbach. The Prokofiev 3rd piano concerto is probably an ideal showpiece for Lang, whose impeccable textural clarity, versatility of touch and sometimes playful quirkiness are ideally suited for this 20th century classic.
Less successful was the second half of the concert. I am by no means one of the perpetual detractors of Eschenbach - I've heard as many good concerts with him as bad ones - but this performance simply did not work conceptually. Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique in Eschenbach's hands just never really took off. Anytime any development or climax would rear its head Eschenbach would extinguish it with some sort of unnatural tempo change that had no basis in the score, thereby ruining all hopes for forward momentum or structural logic.
A typical example: the first appearance of the idée fixe in Un bal. This should have the effect of the entrance of a gorgeous woman who causes heads to turn at a party. Berlioz scores it superbly and makes the entire orchestra give way to the oboe and flute (who introduce the theme) by dialing the dynamics down to ppp, marked additionally "quasi niente". The head-turning, the uniqueness of the moment is all incorporated into the dynamic instructions. What is not necessary is to slow the tempo down to half the speed of the preceding waltz! This completely disrupts the flow and takes the hero's encounter of his beloved outside of the scenery of the ball and makes it an unconnected event. The decrescendo to ppp becomes a nonevent devoid of context, and the idée fixe misses its impact while forward momentum is stopped in its tracks. Eschenbach could have known better than to indulge in such a nonsensical mannerism simply by comparing that passage to the final appearance of the idée fixe just before the concluding con fuoco section of the movement. Here, by contrast, Berlioz expressly demands a poco ritenuto and later additionally marks "rallent. poco". The scene is now a different one. It is the inevitable bittersweet farewell that marks the approaching end of the ball. It is both narratively and structurally logical to have a slowing down here, all the more to better build up the final accelerando. But the effect of that passage is also completely ruined by having the initial idée fixe played at half tempo thereby making the final iteration sound like a mere repeat, instead of a development.
And this is but one small example of the silly indulgences that featured repeatedly and prominently that evening. The CSO played valiantly throughout. Given the minimal rehearsal time allotted for Ravinia concerts this may have been due to the meticulous attention Fabio Luisi lavished on this work earlier last season. Something must have stuck.
Another note on the new screens at Ravinia: It would make far more sense to have the screens visible for the lawn population. The Pavilion audience does not really need them and compared to the Grant Park Festival the lawn audiences at Ravinia are getting a raw deal. While audiences at Millennium Park can enjoy a superb state-of-the-art sound system for free and have an almost unobstructed, if distant, view of the stage, Ravinia audiences have to pay $10 for an outdated mediocre sound system and almost no view of the stage. The least they could get for the ten bucks they pay would be a decent view of the screens, don't you think, Ravinia management?