Vondráček and The Emperor review -The Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia

The CSO at Ravinia
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On July 17, 2021, The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, (CSO) with guest pianist Lukáš Vondráček, under the masterly baton of Maestra Marin Alsop, performed a stunning program of works by Ravel, Ginastera and Beethoven at The Ravinia Festival, surely one of the loveliest outdoor music parks on earth and the oldest in North America. Doubtlessly due to the lingering effects of Covid-caution, and unlike any other evening this reviewer has attended, the park was not jam-packed, and the true splendor of the fountains, flowers, plush lawns and abundant statuary was fully obvious under the canopies of mature trees.

The fountain awaits Ravinia vistors, Photo: Debra Davy

As always, the acoustics inside and outside the Pavilion were perfect and the soaring artistry of Orchestra and pianist were beautifully amplified. Maestra Alsop was in command of the CSO, at the top of their form, and also closely coordinated with Vondráček, who came onstage for the finale, and played the piano portion of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, known as “The Emperor”.

Maestra Marin Alsop conducting

The first piece, lingeringly lovely, was Maurice Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin, 1914-1917, originally composed in 6 movements for piano; in 1919 Ravel orchestrated 4 of the movements, and these were performed this night. Each of the 6 movements was dedicated as a memorial to a friend of the composer who died in World War 1.

The Prélude relies heavily on repetitive virtuoso oboes before the strings overtake them, later joined by the winds while the oboe acts as solo. However, all the instruments are utilized in this ravishing movement, characterized by chromatic harmony, from harp to upper winds.

The Forlane, by contrast, is charming; based on a traditional Italian folk dance, it opens with strings, quickly joined by woodwinds; the 2 groups engage in a call and response- the whole very repetitive, before fading into quietude.

The Menuet (erroneously printed as the 4th movement on the program, but orchestrated and performed as the third) is a slower piece than the first two, again dependant on the oboe, delicate yet developing into a myriad of textures.

Finally, The Rigaudon was the most spirited of the 4 movements, complex, initially rapid and then suddenly much slower, before closing with the first spirited theme.

Photo: Debra Davy

Alberto Ginastera’s Variaciones concertantes, 1953, was a showpiece for the superlative technical abilities of the great CSO. Two interludes- one for strings, one for winds, set off seven variations spotlighting different solo instruments. They include highly spirited flutes, slightly dissonant clarinet, a wonder of viola, a darker oboe/bassoon duet, a short astonishing trumpet/trombone piece, a veritable whirlwind for violins and a lyrical pastorale for horns. Afterwards, the main theme is reprised via harp and double bass before the full ensemble climaxes with a jazzy dance.

Lukáš Vondráček

Ludwig von Beethoven’s last piano concerto, The Emperor 1809, was presented by Orchestra and Vondráček as an astonishing triumph of musicianship. The large screens on either side of the stage allowed the audience to appreciate the vastly intricate and exquisite fingering by Vondráček, face rapt and torso bent over the keyboard. At times, the focus of the screens was on the instantaneous precision of fingerwork; at times, one could see the inside movement of the instrument in response to those flying fingers; at times, one wondered how the pianist himself responded to the sight of his own digits clearly reflected in the high gleam of the Steinway.

The piece projects raw power, opening with the full grandeur of the Orchestra, and continues for 40 minutes, essentially accompanying the brilliant solo artist in a subtle, lush and ultimately exuberant grand allegro.

Photo: Debra Davy

All photos courtesy of The Ravinia Festival unless otherwise noted.

Tickets for concerts scheduled after August 15, 2021 are available to Ravinia donors now and go on sale to the public at 9 a.m. (Central Time) on July 21, 2021 exclusively at www.Ravinia.org

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