Conductor Marin Alsop was the “artistic curator” of the Ravinia 2018 Leonard Bernstein centennial celebration. It was a natural choice given that Alsop had been a protégé of Bernstein and was such a success that it was carried over into the 2019 season. Bernstein’s “Mass” was encored and recorded for national television broadcast on PBS’ “Great Performances.”
When Welz Kauffman announced in late 2019 that he would be stepping down as Ravinia CEO and president in 2020 after twenty years at the helm, Alsop was soon after announced as Ravinia’s first-ever “chief conductor and curator,” effective Kauffman’s final season. The timing was curious, given that Alsop announced her departure as music director of the Baltimore Symphony at the end of the 2020-21 season just weeks later.
Given the pandemic, none of the Kauffman farewell celebration concerts took place, and Alsop’s Ravinia position was delayed until the start of the 2021 season.
Aside from this being the first full-scale Chicago Symphony concert in sixteen months, the fact that it was happening on a Friday night was a marked departure from the Kauffman era, when the prime weekend spots were primarily for pop and rock acts. If a weekend night was a CSO night, it was usually the CSO accompanying a blockbuster movie.
After a surprisingly slow National Anthem, with the same brass and percussion forces used for the opening piece, Joan Tower’s “Fanfare for the Uncommon Women, No. 1” ensued, with its familiar Coplandesque celebratory pageantry. Being the dedicatee of the work, Alsop has made this a signature piece. There have been five other moments written by Tower since “No. 1” was premiered in 1986.
Mexican-born Highland Park pianist Jorge Federico Osorio’s artistry is always welcome, but given he was performing the Mozart “Piano Concerto No. 23” in a venue where he also resides made it all the more so.
It seemed like Osorio was calling the shots musically, if not always in sync with Alsop’s often rather staid and ponderous accompaniment.
2020 was to have been the Beethoven 250th birthday celebration not only at Ravinia, but all over the musical world. Thus, using the Beethoven “Seventh Symphony” as a calling card to state things were musically coming back to life was an inspiring choice. Not only does its haunting Allegretto serve as a funeral march that has never sounded so mournful and relevant (as the reported known COVID-19 death toll has now topped four million), but the joyous and jubilant music that follows served as a life-affirming reminder of hope.
The CSO gave Alsop a nuanced and well-balanced performance that was greeted with an instantaneous standing ovation at its rousing conclusion.
Marin Alsop’s second weekend of Ravinia concerts begins tonight, with the music of newly announced CSO composer-in-residence Jesse Montgomery, the Prokofiev “First Violin Concerto” with recent Kennedy Center honoree Midori as soloist and the Mendelssohn “Italian” Symphony. Saturday’s performance includes music of Ravel, Ginastera and the Beethoven “Emperor” Piano Concerto with Czech pianist Lukáš Vondrácek. Sunday’s program is devoted to “Legendary Women’s Voices” with British actress, singer and songwriter Cynthia Erivo. For more information, visit Ravinia’s website.
Dennis Polkow is an award-winning veteran journalist, critic, author, broadcaster and educator. He made his stage debut at age five, was a child art prodigy and began playing keyboards in clubs at the age of fourteen. He holds degrees in music theory, composition, religious studies and philosophy from DePaul University in Chicago. Polkow spent his early years performing and recording in rock and jazz bands while concertizing as a classical pianist, organist and harpsichordist and composing, arranging and producing for other artists. As a scholar, Polkow has published and lectured extensively and taught at several colleges and universities in various departments. As an actor, narrator and consultant, Polkow has been involved with numerous films, plays, broadcasts and documentaries. As a journalist, Polkow helped co-create the experiential Chicago Musicale and Spotlight, the award-winning tabloid arts and entertainment section of the Press Publications chain of newspapers, which he later edited. He also created and ran the nationally recognized journalism program at Oakton College and was faculty advisor to its award-winning student newspaper; many former students went on to major media careers, including Channel Awesome’s the Nostalgia Critic. Polkow’s research, interviews, features, reviews and commentaries have appeared across national and international media and he has corresponded from the Middle East, Asia and Africa for the Chicago Tribune. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org