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Offbeat: James Conlon Bids Farewell to Ravinia, Says “Si” to Italy

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James Conlon / Photo Courtesy of Ravinia Festival

James Conlon/Photo: Ravinia Festival

By Dennis Polkow

“After I became music director eleven years ago,” says Ravinia Festival music director James Conlon, “it was so interesting how many people I would meet around the country, or Americans I would meet in Europe, that would say, ‘You know? I heard my first concerts at Ravinia.’ I started to think that everybody grew up on the North Shore of Chicago and somehow or another moved to another place in the world. It is astounding how many people of all ages were formed there, from twenty-year-olds to eighty-year-olds, and how many people Ravinia has been able to reach in its way and introduce classical music to them. Of course, the trump card of the Chicago Symphony is the best way you can do that. It was very striking to me and I am very proud to be a part of that tradition and process and hope it will continue on forever.”

Nonetheless, Conlon announced last August that the 2015 season would be his last as Ravinia music director, and that 2016 would also end his music directorship of the Cincinnati May Festival after thirty-six years. Instead, he will become the first American to ever become principal conductor of the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della Rai in Turin, Italy. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Puccini’s “Tosca”/Ravinia Festival

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Bryn Terfel


It has been seven years since Bryn Terfel last sang in Chicago. The Welsh bass-baritone superstar has severely curtailed his American appearances and the Met has been his first priority when he does come to the States. This week Terfel makes his long-awaited return to Chicago at Ravinia, where he had several early career triumphs.

Terfel will sing the role of Scarpia in a concert version of Puccini’s “Tosca” with soprano Patricia Racette in the title role and Italian tenor Salvatore Licitra as Cavaradossi, with Ravinia music director James Conlon conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (not the CSO chorus, however, in another Ravinia cost-cutting move).

The title and most popular aria (“Vissi d’arte”) may belong to Tosca, but in many ways, this is Scarpia’s opera, and Terfel is known for his blood-curdling portrayal and for the way that he toys with Tosca and creates sadistic sexual tension with her. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Complete Beethoven Concertos/Jorge Federico Osorio & Chicago Symphony Orchestra

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Jorge Federico Osorio


Last month’s downtown Beethoven Festival that had departing CSO principal conductor Bernard Haitink traversing all nine of the Beethoven symphonies across three weeks of concerts gets a magnificent and compact summer cadenza at Ravinia with a rare and wonderful opportunity to experience all five Beethoven piano concertos across two consecutive concerts.

Mexican-born pianist Jorge Federico Osorio, who has long made Highland Park his home but who had to prove himself the world over before being taken seriously as a rank concretizer  of choice here will be the soloist, a coup for all involved. Ravinia is loosely attempting to tie in the 200th anniversary of Mexican independence to Osorio’s heritage, but an opportunity to hear a complete Beethoven Piano Concerto cycle with a pianist of Osorio’s caliber needs no such gimmickry and is a major musical statement in and of itself.

Mozart is often credited with creating the piano concerto as we know it, but it was Beethoven who not only gave the orchestra an expanded and eventually a role equal to that of the soloist, but who made the piano concerto a more personal vehicle of self-expression and emotion, marking the transition from Classicism to Romanticism. Read the rest of this entry »

Ravinia to perform rarely heard Mahler and host operatic return of Bryn Terfel in 2011

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Today, July 7, 2010 is Gustav Mahler’s 150th birthday anniversary, and in honor of the occasion, Ravinia Festival president and CEO Welz Kauffman and music director James Conlon shared details of three concerts that will be part of the 2011 summer residency of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

The particulars were shared initially with the musicians themselves this morning at the CSO’s rehearsal at the North Shore Festival before being released to the media later today.  Among the announcements:

  • James Conlon will conclude his multi-year Mahler Cycle during the centennial anniversary summer of the composer’s death by conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in “Das klagende Lied” (“Song of Lamentation”), the first time this rarely heard Mahler masterpiece will be performed at Ravinia in more than twenty years.
  • Conlon will also conduct the CSO in Puccini’s “Tosca,” starring soprano Patricia Racette in the title role with Italian tenor Salvatore Licitra as Cavaradossi and Welsh bass-baritone superstar Bryn Terfel making his long-awaited return to Chicago opera—his first appearance here in seven years—as Scarpia.
  • Ravinia has commissioned twentysomething indie-rock and classical composer Nico Muhly to write a new multi-genre work specifically for the 5 Browns, a family of acclaimed twentysomething pianists who perform together with five pianos on stage.

Remaining details of these and other programs planned for the CSO’s 2011 summer residency at Ravinia will be released in coming months. (Dennis Polkow)

Preview: Mahler 150th and Barber 100th Birthday Concert/Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia

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From the last page of Mahler's draft manuscript of the Tenth


Gustav Mahler’s 150th birthday anniversary is July 7 this year and the rest of the world is celebrating in a big way. Curiously, in Chicago, home of one of the world’s finest Mahler orchestras, one that during the pre-Muti era made Mahler its bread-and-butter repertoire, the event is passing by virtually unnoticed, with only a single movement of the Mahler Tenth Symphony to be heard to mark the occasion.

Even more bizarrely, that single movement is being touted by Ravinia as the culmination of James Conlon’s multi-year complete Mahler cycle which was originally to have had a massive encore for the anniversary, replicating one of the Festival’s most daring and memorable seasons when James Levine and a number of conductors—including Conlon—performed all ten symphonies and “Das Lied von der Erde” across a single summer. Welz Kauffman says that idea became cost-prohibitive but that next season will bring “significant Mahler, previously unheard” for the centennial of Mahler’s death.

As for only doing a movement of the Tenth this year for the 150th Mahler birthday anniversary, Kauffman is quick to point out that Ravinia celebrated early by presenting two of the symphonies every summer virtually since Conlon took over the music directorship five seasons ago, and that doing the Adagio from the Tenth this year offers some space between those performances—which included performances of the Ninth and “Das Lied von der Erde” last season alone—and next season’s major Mahler offerings. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: American Masters/Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia

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Aaron Copland rehearsing the Chicago Symphony at Ravinia in 1968. (Courtesy of Ravinia Festival)


This all-American program conducted by James Conlon celebrates the twenty-year death anniversaries of two American giants who were both composer-conductors, Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland.  Despite both icons passing away in 1990, Copland was nearly a generation older than Bernstein and had turned 90 just a few weeks before his death, while Lenny was 72 when he died and had joked in his later years that had he known he would live so long, he would have taken better care of himself.

Curiously, despite having written some wonderful music over the years, Bernstein remains primarily a conductor in the public consciousness, while the reverse is true for Aaron Copland, who made some wonderful recordings as a conductor—particularly of his own music—but is best remembered as a composer.

Bernstein and Copland also performed at Ravinia on a number of occasions, as did George Gershwin, who appeared at the festival once as a pianist playing his own music in 1936, a year before his death, and whose Concerto in F will be heard on this program with soloist Orion Weiss.

Copland will be represented with a complete performance of his “Appalachian Spring” ballet and Bernstein with a rare performance of his Symphony No. 2, “The Age of Anxiety” with Joyce Yang taking the piano role of the composer himself wittingly contemplating the poetry of W. H. Auden with a orchestra including a large battery of percussion as worthy protagonists.

A two-hour pre-concert seminar (2:30pm-4:30pm) with musicologist Robert Greenberg on all three composers will be free for ticket holders. (Dennis Polkow)

July 11, 5pm, Ravinia Festival, Green Bay and Lake-Cook Roads, Highland Park (847)266-5100. $10-$25.

Preview: Wagner Ring Highlights/Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia

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John Treleaven as Siegfried (Courtesy of L.A. Opera)


With the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s downtown Beethoven Festival going late into June, Ravinia has had to make due for its first weeks of programming without its longtime premier partner. In the past when this has happened, the North Shore Festival has experimented with residencies of other orchestras and chamber groups to pick up the slack, but this year classical programming gave way primarily to pop and jazz offerings instead for those opening weeks.

With the end of the Beethoven Festival and departing principal conductor Bernard Haitink’s moving farewell where after all of the PR rhetoric and awards were said and done, he characteristically and humbly chose to thank Beethoven “who had such a miserable life and gave us so many wondrous masterpieces.”

Meanwhile, Ravinia music director James Conlon is not to be outdone in his opening CSO summer concerts and is including a highlights program of the Los Angeles Opera’s first-ever Wagner “Ring” Cycle that he will finish conducting mere days before arriving here and which will feature soprano Christine Brewer as Brünnhilde and John Treleaven as Siegfried. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Dmitri Hvorostovsky/Ravinia Festival

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RECOMMENDEDPeoiple Hvorostovsky

Here’s something you’re not likely to see at Lyric Opera anytime soon: Siberian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky as the ugly hunchback dwarf Rigoletto in Verdi’s opera of the same name.  Hvorostovsky’s matinee-idol looks won him a spot as one of People Magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People” but in a concert version of the opera, he won’t even have to bend over while he is singing.  We haven’t seen Hvorostovsky here since his belated-but-memorable performances in Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” at Lyric Opera a couple of seasons ago, but his rare artistry is always welcome and illuminating.  And though Verdi may not be the first thing you would associate with Hvorostovsky’s unique voice, the first role he ever did here was Germont in “La traviata.”  Cuban-American soprano Eglise Gutierrez is Gilda, Italian tenor Stefano Secco is the Duke of Mantua and James Conlon conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  In a shameful cost-cutting move on Ravinia’s part, the first-rate Chicago Symphony Chorus is being sidelined for the far-inferior amateur Apollo Chorus.  Hvorostovsky will also give a rare area recital of all-Russian repertoire with pianist Ivari Ilja on August 18 in Ravinia’s intimate Martin Theatre that includes rarely heard songs by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Nikolai Medtner. (Dennis Polkow)

August 15 (opera), 7:30pm, and  August 18 (recital), 8pm, Ravinia Festival, Lake-Cook & Green Bay, Highland Park, (847)266-5000.

Preview: Patti LuPone & the Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Kurt Weill—Songs from Berlin to Broadway

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RECOMMENDEDBild 146-2005-0119

When James Conlon became music director of the Ravinia Festival in 2005, he began a multi-year “Breaking the Silence” series to showcase music of composers who had been officially censured—and in most cases, later killed—by the Third Reich. Happily, this year’s subject, Kurt Weill, was astute enough to leave the country for Paris immediately after Hitler came to power in 1933, making his way to the United States two years later where he refused to speak German, corrected journalists who labeled him a German composer—”I am an American now”—and created an entirely new career on Broadway with innovative shows that not only constantly broke new ground but were loved by critics, performers and the public alike; several even became hit films as well. Weill’s songs became an essential part of the Great American Songbook and many became enormous hits by singers of all genres. This concert looks at both Weill’s unparalleled German and American music legacies, including as it does a rare complete concert performance of his last collaboration with Bertolt Brecht, 1933’s “Die sieben Todsündern” (“The Seven Deadly Sins”) with Patti LuPone and Hudson Shad and the “Symphonic Nocturne” from his 1940 Broadway show “Lady in the Dark” which ironically, was put together by legendary Broadway orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett despite the fact that Weill was the only Broadway composer who insisted on doing his own orchestrations. James Conlon conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and also participates in a 6pm Martin Theatre pre-concert discussion about Weill with Kim Kowalke, president of the Kurt Weill Foundation. (Dennis Polkow)

August 8 at Ravinia Festival, Lake-Cook & Green Bay Roads, Highland Park, (847)266-5000; $10-$95, 7:30pm.

Preview: Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Mahler Ninth Symphony

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“In reality, you are about to hear the Ninth Symphony of Gustav Mahler,” proclaimed conductor James Conlon as he was about to lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a performance of “Das Lied von der Erde” (“Song of the Earth”) last weekend at Ravinia, the penultimate concert of a multi-year Mahler cycle that began when Conlon became the North Shore festival’s music director back in 2005.  Mahler indeed composed “Das Lied” after his mammoth Eighth Symphony and subtitled it a symphony, but given that Beethoven, Schubert and Bruckner had all died after writing a Ninth Symphony, he superstitiously refused to place that ominous number on the work and felt that he had somehow cheated fate as a result. Ironically, Mahler would go on to write a Ninth, and even an un-orchestrated Tenth Symphony, which he would not live to complete.  While “Das Lied” is really more of an orchestral song cycle than a symphony, the symphony that Mahler completed after “Das Lied” and actually did affix the fateful number “Nine” to will complete the cycle. Read the rest of this entry »