Classical standards performed in beautiful surroundings

Rafael Payare conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony at the Ravinia Festival. (Photo courtesy Ravinia Festival/Patrick Gibson)

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Outdoor concerts are one of the joys of summer; and for Chicagoans, the Grand Dame of the musical outdoors is the Ravinia Festival. It offers a wide range of musical genres and performances, including some events just for kids. But for the classical music fan, Ravinia is cherished for its fine chamber music concerts as well as the big symphonic splashes. Ravinia is the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which celebrates warmth and sun with top-notch performances in a casual yet lovely setting.

Perfect for a summer concert in the great outdoors is the Beethoven Symphony No. 5. Certainly popular among classical music fans, it has been massaged into various more popular forms, including a disco version as well as the theme music for the program featuring one of America’s most admired scolds: Judge Judy.

The guest conductor for the concert was Rafael Payare, who cut his musical teeth as a student in the El Sistema of Venezuela, where he was a horn player. He will be the next music director of the San Diego Symphony and has been music director of the Ulster Orchestra since 2017.

Payare is fiery, flamboyant, and flashy. In taking on the famous Beethoven symphony, he was incisive and bold; his body language at times even seemed to verge on the defiant. His pacing in the first movement was splendid, and he knew where to place emphasis and punch.

The Andante was infused with airiness, and the dynamic surges were naturally done. The cellos had particularly pleasing sound in this section of the symphony.

In the Scherzo, Payare drew out the tension in the score and the music propelled forward in exciting blocks of sound. The trio section had fine contrapuntal qualities and the return to the main theme featured crisp pizzicato.

The triumphant final movement was given an exhilarating reading. Payare reveled in the high volume and pounding rhythm.

After the intermission Yefim Bronfman joined Payare and the CSO as the soloist in the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1.

One of the many admirable aspects of Ravinia is that there are several cameras on stage so that the performance can also be viewed on large screens. This allows the audience to see musicians at the very back as well as the face of the conductor. But what I love the most about these cameras is that for pianists you have one view which is directly above the keyboard, giving you an unusual but fascinating vantage point.

Bronfman does not draw attention to himself with exaggerated gestures or self-serving postures; he just gets the job done in a charming, musically marvelous way. In the opening, he had fluidity and bright sound. His power was expertly deployed as he clambered up and down the keyboard with robust enthusiasm.

The middle movement was nicely hushed as Payare cushioned the soloist in quiet beauty that was smoothness itself. Bronfman accentuated the earnest nature of the music. The movement ended with great delicacy.

Bronfman had pixie-like runs in the final movement, with both piano and orchestra emphasizing the urgency of the music. The camera above the keyboard added some Hollywood-style glitz by using a slow zoom accompanied by a twirling lens. The work ended on a hopeful note and the audience was well pleased.

Ravinia is enjoyable whether you have seats in the pavilion or seats on the lawn. I attended this concert last Thursday with a car full of folks from Hyde Park and South Shore. Half of us had pavilion seats, the other half lawn tickets. We all shared a delightful picnic before the performance in the late day sun, appreciating the splendid park Ravinia offers. Lawn tickets — at only $10 — are a bargain, but my friends sitting there did report a competing concert of cicadas. Nature lovers may feel doubly treated while music purists may strongly dislike this competition.

Upcoming performers at Ravinia include Angel Blue, Denis Matsuev, Alisa Weilerstein, Patricia Racette, Gil Shaham, and James Galway. On Aug. 22 there will be two performances of Bernstein’s “Trouble in Tahiti.” Visiting ensembles include the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra.

To view the complete calendar of events at the Ravinia Festival, visit their website: Ravinia.org.