End of Summer at Ravinia and Grant Park Music Festivals

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Summer is drawing to a close and it’s always bittersweet to write my last reviews of the season for Chicago’s two great summer classical music staples: Ravinia and the Grant Park Music Festival.

One of the highlights of this summer at Ravinia was the long-awaited return of James Levine earlier this month to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Next year he begins his tenure as the festival’s first conductor laureate. The 74-year-old, confined to a wheelchair, had a special podium designed for him, and after he rolled up to the center of the stage he was greeted with great applause.

The evening’s entertainment was Haydn’s “The Creation,” an oratorio completed in 1798 that tells the story of the creation of the world according to the Book of Genesis. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Symphony Chorus were joined by three soloists: soprano Nadine Sierra, tenor Matthew Polenzani, and bass John Relyea.

From the outset, Levine’s interpretation was thoughtful and detailed. The opening was delivered with great portent, the orchestra reveling in the marvelous sense of chaos in Haydn’s score.

Relyea was effective in his first solo, offering a hushed yet serious sound. As the story progressed he developed a commanding and authoritative approach. On more than one occasion he would end a section with well-executed cavernously low notes. In Part 3, when Relyea sings the part of Adam, he offered notably limber singing.

Polenzani was stylish and sang with heart-felt enthusiasm, tempered with a sound that was shimmering yet always collected. His interpretations were sensitive and his shaping of the text was splendid.

Sierra, a young soprano of great promise, had an intriguing, earthy sound at the bottom, and a pleasing lilt at the top. She was bedecked in a gorgeous mermaid-shaped dress in a dark-ish blue shade.

The chorus, prepared by Duain Wolfe, sounded full-blooded and offered dramatic accounts adding vital texture to the performance.

Beginning next year, Levine will conduct multiple concerts a year at Ravinia as conductor laureate.

There are still a couple of classical concerts at Ravinia before the festival closes, including a recital tomorrow night of four-handed Mahler works performed by pianists Inna Faliks and Daniel Schlosberg. Visit ravinia.org for information.

*****

The Grant Park Music Festival (GPMF) closed their 2017 season in style with Beethoven’s great Ninth Symphony on the 19th. So the Pritzker Pavilion stage was full, with the Grant Park Orchestra, the Grant Park Chorus, and a quartet of soloists. Also packed was the Great Lawn as well as the seating shell at Millennium Park

Before the Beethoven, Carlos Kalmar, artistic director and principal conductor of the GPMF, led the orchestra and chorus in a performance of “Schicksalslied” by Brahms. Set to a poem by Hölderlin, it describes the joy of the gods and the despair of mortals.

The orchestral opening was gentle and caressing and the first section with the chorus had sound that was pure and pretty. The performance captured the drama and majesty of the music and had an alluring freshness throughout.

The soloists for Beethoven’s towering Symphony No. 9 were soprano Janai Brugger, mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy, tenor Brendan Tuohy, and bass Russell Braun. They took their seats after the end of the third movement (Kalmar moved directly from the third to fourth movement, so they could not enter later).

Kalmer opened the symphony boldly and ushered his forces through clear and articulate playing. There were nicely drawn contrasts, even if the winds at times were a little difficult to discern. He was alert and precise for second movement, and the strings offered particularly engaging sound full of urgency and tension

There was smooth quiet in the Schezo and the string-wind balance was properly restored while the brass had big impact.

The low strings do a lot of work in the concluding movement, and they were more than up to the task. Kalmar strongly emphasized the contrasts in the music, at times perhaps overly so, meaning that rapid sections sometimes seemed rushed.

The soloists were fine, beginning with Braun, who made his “O Freunde” (O friends) entrance with flair. They were particularly agile in the ensemble sections. Tuohy was on the quiet side during the Turkish March, yet still attractive. McHardy sang with richness of tone and Brugger had glossy high notes.

The chorus was prepared by Benjamin Rivera, and they were the real heroes of the work, singing with polish and dedication.

The audience loved it and multiple curtain calls brought down the curtain on another beautiful season of the Grant Park Music Festival.