By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic
When an artist has to cancel an appearance at the last minute, someone is bound to be disappointed. Last Friday at the Ravinia Festival the audience learned that the scheduled conductor, Christoph Eschenbach, who led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia for a decade starting in the mid-1990s, would not appear because he was ill. Festival organizers moved rapidly and engaged another past Ravinia music director: James Conlon, who served in that capacity from 2005–15.
This had ripple effects. The program was changed, with one Mendelssohn symphony replacing another and the order of the music was also altered. But the results were splendid and the music was mostly alluring.
Things got started with “L’amerò, sarò constante” from “Il rè pastore” by Mozart. Marisol Montalvo was the soprano soloist and offered mostly pleasing sound, but fell flat more than once. She was joined by violinist Ray Chen, who played with unerring buoyancy and Mozartian charisma. Conlon led the CSO in a performance which yielded attractive music but which did not upstage the soloists.
Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915 was not as successful, and represented the only real disappointment of the evening. The orchestra captured Barber’s ambiance admirably, honestly conveying the calm and innocence of an age gone by.
Montalvo, on the other hand, struggled throughout. The biggest problem was that she performed at a volume too low to be consistently heard above the orchestra. Add to that terribly muddled diction (and she is American!), so that the charming text by James Agee was often lost. She invested a lot of effort in physical gestures and movement, much of which seemed at odds with the text.
Chen, on the other hand, could do no wrong. His interpretation of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concert was always exciting, often deeply moving. He coaxed gleaming sound from his violin, at times like shiny platinum, at other times like burnished copper. His phrasing was delicate and apt and his lightness of touch in the racing passages had pixie-like charm.
Chen is one of those players who bounces and bobbles with the music he makes, and he does so in a stylish and eye-grabbing manner. He’s an attractive man (he’s had his own spread in the fashion magazine “Vogue”) and was done up in eveningwear suited to his stage approach. His trousers were tight but perfectly proportioned and the open jacket gave Chen full range of movement. His carefully moussed longish-do meant that his face moved more than his hair, and he looked camera-ready at all times.
Yet in spite of all this eye candy, it was the music that made the greatest effect. The intensity was real and riveting, and his lyricism was glorious. Conlon and the orchestra gave him admirable support. The result was magnificent.
After great applause, Chen offered a brilliant little encore: the Paganini Caprice No. 21.
After the intermission, Conlon and the orchestra had the stage to themselves for Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 (known as the “Italian” and replacing the originally scheduled Symphony No 5.) It was immediately clear why this change had been made. Conlon knows the Mendelssohn 4 backwards and forwards, and conducted without a score.
Before beginning the symphony, Conlon spoke briefly to the audience, pointing out that this particular evening marked to the day the 40th anniversary of his first appearance at Ravinia. The audience held on to his every word, with lots of applause and even loudly audible ohhs and ahhs.
This led directly to a joyful performance. The opening Andante was characterized by easy sound with good emphasis. The music was light-hearted and earnest, including friendly calls from the horns.
The following Allegro was serious without being somber with lovely work from the winds. The lower strings had strong marching lines that propelled the music forward.
The third movement had big, full sound and excellent pacing. The conclusion was imbued with lots of fire and power as well as admirable clarity. The audience rewarded Conlon and the orchestra with enthusiastic applause.