Marin Alsop At Ravinia: Lim, Mozart Are Magic, Beethoven’s A Muddle

Conductor Marin Alsop and pianist Yunchan Lim reunited at the Ravinia Festival after his spectacular win under her baton at the Van Cliburn Competition in 2022. Lim was then 18, the youngest Cliburn grand prize winner in the competition’s history. (Photos by Patrick Gipson/Ravinia Festival)

HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. — Since 1936, the musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have traveled north for a six-week summer residency at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, where the orchestra’s white-jacket season is inserted into an eclectic concert line-up flanked by touring folk, pop, and jazz. The orchestra’s sound reaches out from an open-sided pavilion to thousands of picnickers on the surrounding green, except for a few special occasions when the CSO retreats to a jewel-box theater, the Martin. It’s the oldest structure in the park, and it’s where chamber music and intimate opera still reign.

In the festival’s relaxed atmosphere, almost anything goes, a concept that has been unabashedly exercised by Marin Alsop, Ravinia’s chief conductor and curator of the CSO’s summer residency since 2020. The festival’s leadership succession goes back to 1959 through James ConlonChristoph EschenbachJames LevineIstván KertészSeiji Ozawa, and Walter Hendl, and the open-air pavilion is especially beloved by the residents of nearby Highland Park, who bring elaborate picnics to the festival grounds and wander through its sculpture park prior to sunset. Children are everywhere.

On the pavilion’s surrounding green, the relaxed atmosphere is conducive to casual first-time experiences at Ravinia.

In the 2023 season to date, Alsop has undertaken a radically expanded Beethoven Symphony No. 9 interspersed with poetry and contemporary musical interludes (July 14); an intricate rendering of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute, sung in German by a top-notch cast that switched into endearing English when words were spoken (Aug. 4 and 6); and a joyful reunion with the Cliburn Competition winner Yunchan Lim, 19, performing Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto (Aug. 5). It’s the same Rachmaninoff, under the same conductor, that the South Korean, then 18, performed when he won the Cliburn final round in 2022.

Throughout the Ravinia pavilion, all eyes were on Lim’s hands during Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, which he also played in the Cliburn Competition final round.

Lim is the youngest Cliburn winner ever, a slender reed with a great mop of black hair and a diffident manner that dissolved into profound authority once he set hands to the keys. Generally speaking, the park’s video transmissions, designed for lawn viewing, can seem a distraction to those seated inside the pavilion, where eye-catching big screens flank both sides of the stage. But it was impossible to resist the huge close-ups of Lim’s hands at the keyboard as he tore through Rachmaninoff’s notorious stunts at ferocious speed, only to land with a feather touch on some rarified poetic invention.

To admit that Lim’s work reminded one of Vladimir Horowitz is intended as the highest compliment. The concerto doesn’t just sound difficult; it is extremely so, despite the seductive simplicity with which it begins. The late British pianist Cyril Smith likened its endurance test to shoveling ten tons of coal. But it isn’t the heavy lifting that comes to mind in recalling Lim’s performance; it was the high spirit and shimmering color in playing that was often mirthfully buoyant, all technical hi-jinks deftly applied. The CSO could not have been more supportive; it was an easy rapport between the pianist and Alsop, and his Chicago colleagues were well-attuned to Lim’s nuance.

Augusta Read Thomas, composer of the brilliant orchestral ‘Sun Dance.’

The concerto was preceded by a frankly disappointing, beat-heavy run through Beethoven’s Third Symphony (Eroica). Who knows? Perhaps it was robbed of rehearsal attention. The work preceding it, a concert opener, certainly didn’t proceed on automatic pilot: Sun Dance by Augusta Read Thomas exploded with brass energy and bell-like brilliance in the gleaming orchestral mix; its impact was akin to a blinding burst of light. She must be an early riser. The composer was in residence with the CSO under both Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez, and at 59 she remains a powerhouse incubator of new music at the University of Chicago. There, Thomas established the Center for Contemporary Composition and its Grossman Ensemble, expanding ambitiously on a commissioning and performance legacy that dates back to the school’s mid-60s.

Like Thomas, Alsop is a big-project visionary, but in the case of a July 14 concert of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at Ravinia, part of a global outreach effort in partnership with Carnegie Hall called “All Together – A Global Ode to Joy,” the educational component ran away with the show. To assess Alsop’s Ninth, with its over-stuffing of various poetic and musical inserts, as a significant “fail” is not to forget Alsop’s success with her other ecumenical endeavors. At her best, she has carried on the indefatigable spirit of Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts on CBS television between 1958 and 1972, and her efforts are consistent with his own generous encouragement of the young people marginalized by the racial and gender norms of that day. Bernstein’s teaching efforts at the Boston Symphony’s Tanglewood Festival helped to enlarge the pool of conductors beyond the white male realm.

As one of the first female conductors Bernstein strongly encouraged, Alsop remains loyal to his tradition of wide educational embrace. Still vivid in my own memory is a CSO concert Alsop led in 2022 at Ravinia pairing Bernstein’s Kaddish Symphony with Osvaldo Golijov’s Rose of the Winds. (That Ravinia presentation of the Kaddish Symphony will be aired in PBS’ Great Performances series on Monday, Aug. 21, at 9 p.m. ET.) The latter piece brought klezmer, Galician bagpipes, and shofars; a remarkable group of young players from suburban temples, upholding the ancient musical tradition of the ram’s horn, framed the work in huge embrace. The event amounted to an impressive concert of healing at a disastrous historical moment: Just a few weeks prior, a troubled young shooter had taken aim from a Highland Park rooftop, killing seven and severely injuring dozens at a Fourth of July parade near the festival grounds.

Alsop’s expanded Beethoven Ninth was intended as a global outreach effort, with inserted segments for musicians of all kinds at each performance location. Among the participating ensembles on Ravinia’s crowded stage was Ayodele Drum & Dance, a Chicago-based “sister circle” rooted in West African culture.

Yet even as her 2023 concert racked up some exhilarating highs, Alsop’s Beethoven consistently misfired. The Ninth was a particular frustration on July 14, as a well-meaning prelude and an additional mix of interludes between movements pretty well sank the LvB ship. Much can be said for the excellence of the local musicians who participated — the Chicago-based Jim Gailloreto with his jazz trio and Ayodele Drum & Dance, an all-female ensemble in the West African stylistic tradition. A shout-out as well for the lyric potential of the Chicago-born composer Reena Esmail (b. 1983). Her parents are Portuguese Indian and Indian Pakistani; the blended musical influences in her choral composition for combined forces fit the spirit of the evening.

But the positioning of Esmail’s See Me, the brief work at the top of the concert, also required onstage room for the professional Adrian Dunn Singers and the high-schoolers of the Senn Arts Vocal Ensemble, in addition to the CSO chorus and the orchestra itself. As with the other additions and insertions, these complex stage logistics hampered Beethoven’s own throughline. The tricky traipsing of these supplemental forces in the crowded area became a dread fascination in its own right. Did I mention that the Chicago Symphony Chorus also sang? Or that the ace quartet of soloists in the Ninth comprised soprano Janai Brugger, mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon, tenor Paul Appleby, and bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green? It was quite understandable that Alsop’s tempos seemed generally driven. This unwieldy performance got bogged down by its own weight. As a keeper in my memory book, it has no chance.

Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute,’ featuring tenor Matthew Polenzani, right, as Tamino and baritone Joshua Hopkins as Papageno, was given in a charming, semi-staged version by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia’s Martin Theatre on Aug. 5. The Queen’s Three Ladies, from left, are Tiffany Choe, Ashley Dixon, and Taylor Raven.

How then to square this shortfall of Beethoven’s Ninth with the exquisite, over-the-top excellence of the Alsop-led Magic Flute, an experience that few inside the 850-seat Martin Theatre are likely to forget? Guiding an endearing cast of top-level singers who switched back and forth with unaffected ease between impeccably sung German and charming colloquial English, Alsop led us smoothly through Mozart’s adventures of Tamino (Matthew Polenzani), Pamina (Brugger again), and Papageno (Joshua Hopkins) in their pursuit of wisdom and love.

Even the Queen of the Night (Kathryn Lewek) was fetchingly evil at her coloratura darndest, and CSO principal flute Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson, plucked from the Metropolitan Opera, performed Tamino’s magical flute incantation as pure healing balm. In the exceptional Aug. 6 matinee performance I experienced under Alsop’s baton, with Chicago’s Apollo Chorus and the feather-light touch of James Robinson’s whimsical concert staging, this touching storybook Magic Flute will long linger as a treasured memory among my decades of Ravinia summers.

Getting an early taste of opera in Ravinia’s Martin Theatre, young viewers track the action in Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute.’