The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has made its summer home at the Ravinia Festival outside of Chicago for 74 seasons. This season's residency began quietly in the pavilion on Monday June 28 with an all-Chopin program, conducted by its music director since 2005 James Conlon, who is also music director of the Los Angeles Opera.
Actually it was so quiet as to be puzzling. Monday is certainly not a big concert night. Even more curious was the structure of the evening, which began with pianist Garrick Ohlsson playing a solo, followed by Chopin's Second Piano Concerto, with the orchestra. After intermission Ohlsson played another solo, followed by the composer's First Piano Concerto. It is the first time such a odd format was used for a concert at Ravinia. Let's hope it is the last.
One of the best programs of the season was spread over two nights, when Mexican-born pianist
Jorge Federico Osorio played all five Beethoven piano concertos with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under Conlon's baton July 15 and 16. This olympian feat was presented with clarity and elegance, minus wild gestures or tortured facade so many pianists employ. Osorio lives nearby and has a great local following.
American soprano Renee Fleming sang Strauss's "Four Last Songs" July 24 with the Chicago Symphony and Conlon. It was an unforgettable performance by one of our reigning divas.
Another highlight was the presentation in the smaller 850-seat Martin Theatre of two Mozart operas, "Cosi Fan Tutte," starring soprano Frederica von Stade as Despina Aug. 5 and 7 , and "The Marriage of Figaro," with Nathan Gunn as Count Almaviva Aug. 6 and 8. Performances were sold out almost immediately after they were announced.
Members of the Chicago Symphony were positioned on stage behind the singers, who deftly navigated the narrow space and gave spirited performances. This was the second in a series of Mozart operas presented at the festival by Conlon. In 2008 he conducted "The Abduction from the Seraglio" and "Don Giovanni" in the Martin.
Yo-Yo Ma brought his Silk Road Ensemble to the pavilion Aug. 20 and the audience was treated to a night of unusual and fascinating music.
The festival observed a number of anniversaries — so many it was hard to keep track. The 200th birthdays of Schumann and Chopin were marked, as was the 150th birthday of Gustav Mahler, and the 100th birthday of Samuel Barber.
Musical celebrations were held for James Conlon's 60th birthday and the 70th birthday of former music director Christoph Eschenbach, who returned this seasons to conduct the CSO as he has done in previous years.
As if looking for anniversaries everywhere, the festival even dedicated programs to Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland, who died 20 years ago in 1990!
This year was also the 80th birthday of Stephen Sondheim, and some serious public relations problems arose during the Sondheim celebration July 31, when Patti Lupone, Audra McDonald, George Hearn and Michael Cerveris performed some of the composer's hits. The concert was the centerpiece of the festival's gala benefit evening, a beautiful annual event sponsored by the Ravinia Women's Board. Sondheim fans came from far and wide and were disappointed at the brevity the program. In fact, short programs had been standard on benefit nights for more than a decade, but either many members of the audience had not been adequately informed or didn't process the information. Whatever the reason, there was a storm of protest, with Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones fanning the flames.
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra plays in the 3,200 seat pavilion, which is now equipped with video screens on either side of the stage. That allows the audience to see the hands of the pianists, the smiles of the sopranos, and the orchestral players up close as they present some of the most beautiful music in the world.
Located on 35 acres in the wooded Chicago suburb of Highland Park, Ravinia has the distinction of being the oldest outdoor music festival in North America, opening in 1904 as an amusement and entertainment destination for an inter-urban railway.