A joyful noise at the Ravinia Festival

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Saturday evening was warm and pleasant at the Ravinia Music Festival as a huge crowd on the lawn and a large crowd in the pavilion gathered to hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra perform works by Bernstein and Beethoven. The packed lawn crowd had twinkling candles, glasses sparkling with wine, and picnic foods of all varieties, as they relaxed in the evening sun before the concert started.

Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra since 2007, was the guest conductor. She is the first-ever “music curator” at Ravinia and is in charge of Ravinia’s multi-year celebration of the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein, including six concerts with the CSO this summer. She briefly summarized her attachment to the great American composer-conductor when she wrote, “Leonard Bernstein was my hero as a child and my mentor as an adult.”

First on the program was a Bernstein work from the 1960s: “Chicester Psalms” commissioned by the Dean of Chichester Cathedral, Walter Hussey. It is a work in three movements for boy soprano, solo quartet (in this performance, drawn from the Chicago Symphony Chorus), choir, and orchestra. Its world premiere took place in New York one day short of 53 years before Saturday night’s performance. It was performed again as part of the Chicester Festival several days later.

The first movement is joyous and festive and the chorus, with particularly difficult features for the male singers to navigate, offered strength and clarity. Wyatt Parr, the boy soprano, was both poised and adorable and had an attractive voice with an innocent and pure sound. There were translations of the sung Hebrew texts projected on the video screens that showed the performers. This is a tremendously successful way to communicate what is being sung, and keeps listeners from burying their noses in a program.

The opening celebrated the “joyful noise” the composer surely wanted, from the bounce in the percussion to the strong, sweeping phrases in the strings.

The second movement opened with calm before diving into more stormy music based on material that Bernstein had cut from “West Side Story.”

The final movement had fire and the chorus was splendid with the orchestra offering firm support and well paced excitement.

After the intermission, Alsop and the CSO took on Beethoven’s final symphony. The Ninth remains immensely popular and a fine assembly of soloists was present: soprano Tamara Wilson, mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, tenor Paul Appleby, and bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green.

Alsop was slow to find the grandeur and nobility of the music, at times seeming to be content to merely communicate the notes on the score, even though she conducted entirely from memory. The first movement found some blurring of the music in the most rapid passages and she sometimes opted for tempos which veered on the vulgar side. The second movement was an improvement, although the balance went against the winds.

She gathered steam, however, by the third movement and the orchestral playing bloomed with beauty and majesty. This moved immediately to the final movement, where Alsop encouraged the cellos to dig down deep and they came up with a sound of gold.

It is famously the bass soloist who introduces voice into the symphony, and Green was marvelous. He had sensitive, clear phrasing and a cool and composed approach to the music. Appleby was truly fine in the Turkish March, with glorious control and ringing tone.

Wilson and DeYoung were both strong singers, offering lush sound and engaging attention to the text.

Both chorus and orchestra came alive, giving their best performances of the evening, offering crisp sound and full attention to detail. From the towering moments of intense volume to the subdued sections, all was first rate.

The heroic music was greatly appreciated by the audience, who offered tremendous applause and many shouts of enthusiasm.

It was a wonderful way to spend a beautiful summer Saturday night.