CHICAGO — If it didn’t quite rise to a red-letter day, conductor Marin Alsop’s rewarding guest appearance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was at least splashed with black ink. On the same day that she commenced her concert series at Orchestra Hall (Feb. 10), the Ravinia Festival, where the CSO has a summer residency, announced Alsop’s three-year extension as chief conductor through 2025.
The festival’s top conducting job has been previously held by Seiji Ozawa, István Kertész, Christoph Eschenbach, James Levine, and James Conlon. Covid wiped out Alsop’s first summer there in 2020. The Ravinia extension will bring her active engagement to five years.
Music director of the Baltimore Symphony from 2007-21, the first woman to hold that position with a major American orchestra, Alsop also served for 25 years as music director of California’s Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music. Her advocacy for women on the podium forms the nexus of a new three-day celebration-cum-festival, “Breaking Barriers,” planned for July 29-31 at Ravinia. The festivities will honor Margaret Hillis, who founded and led the Chicago Symphony Chorus, with performances of major choral works; Leonard Bernstein, Alsop’s primary mentor, through his music for female voices; and Alsop herself, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Taki Alsop Fellowship for women conductors by featuring several winners.
Alsop’s relationship with the Chicago Symphony extends back 20 years, to her first concert at Ravinia in 2002. She made her debut at Orchestra Hall in 2015. This latest get-together, not amid the festival crickets but in the quiet of the CSO’s own house, offered an impressive display of the rapport Alsop has gained with the orchestra. It was also notable for the repertoire she chose: Samuel Barber’s early Symphony No. 1 and Elgar’s Enigma Variations, brilliantly fashioned works but strikingly different in style, the former emotionally concentrated and muscular, the latter an elegant essay in the art of orchestration. Even the program’s nominal centerpiece, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor with soloist Lukáš Vondráček, cast a becoming light on the conductor.
As the assured and durable work of a 25-year-old composer, Barber’s Symphony No. 1 brings to mind the First Symphony of 19-year-old Dmitri Shostakovich. Not so much in stylistic resemblance but rather in their shared aura of bracing originality and absolute confidence. What the two works do have in common is a lean efficiency, expressive of piquant wit in Shostakovich and blazing emotional intensity in Barber.
Alsop, leading from memory, kept a taut line on the sweeping superstructure of Barber’s symphony, which unfolds in a single movement of about 20 minutes’ duration. At the same time, the conductor also sustained the heated lyricism that courses through a work marked by the poetic sensibility that would touch Barber’s music throughout his life. The Chicago Symphony responded with a performance that displayed equal parts of sinew and silk, as incisive as it was burnished.
While Elgar’s Enigma Variations (1898-99) still makes for heady listening, and still measures the finesse of an orchestra, the identities of the composer’s 14 friends caricatured in these arabesques have long since ceased to matter very much, at least on this side of the pond. The work remains a marvel of invention and a masterpiece of orchestral portraiture, richly hued and yet adroitly reserved — the very model of late-Victorian Britannia. Again, Alsop eschewed a score as she mined the sparkling wealth of Elgar’s sly sketches. The CSO was right with her all the way, caroming and cartwheeling through Elgar’s fetching twists and turns with a bright spirit to match its gorgeous sound.
A concerto performance has a problem when the ear trends away from the soloist to find greater rewards in the orchestra and more felicitous musicianship on the podium. Not very far into Vondráček’s turn through Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, I found myself thus drifting and drawn. The 35-year-old Czech pianist is an imposing virtuoso clearly equal to every technical extremity of Rachmaninoff’s grand concerto. What never did emerge amid the sheer power of his performance was a sense of lyric line or a particular consciousness of softer values. Alsop, for her part, was ever mindful of the gentle and soaring song nestled within Rachmaninoff’s heroic splendor. And the Chicago Symphony got it. That side of the experience was lovely; and happily, Elgar was still to come.