Ravinia Festival: impressions of a first-time visit

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AS a newcomer to the Ravinia Festival experience, I had developed numerous preconceptions about the park itself and the quality of musicmaking there. Though I knew it to be the summer home of the justly celebrated Chicago Symphony Orchestra, I was afraid that with all the music being performed, standards would be disturbingly low. And, as a veteran of over 12 years of Tanglewood concerts (summer home of the equally renowned Boston Symphony), I was sure no suburban park could be as beautiful as that estate in the Berkshire Mountains. I was wrong on both counts.

Ravinia Park is a grassy, tree-rimmed enclave some 40 minutes north of downtown Chicago, perched next to an active railroad right-of-way. The main pavilion is a large, utilitarian structure, seating more than 3,500. The stage is ample and can be expanded to cope with the massive forces of Mahler's Eighth. Antiseptic fluorescent lighting and white bubblelike overhead acoustical panels do not make for an imposing visual frame, but acoustically - at least where I was sitting - the pavilion is impressive, which is all that really matters.

Ravinia's most treasured asset is the Murray Theater, dating from the turn of the century. The wooden building, now air-conditioned, seats fewer than 1,000 and sports the original proscenium arch and full stage. This ideal recital hall is often used throughout the summer for both full recitals and chamber-music preview concerts.

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This season, Ravinia's 52nd, opened June 26 with James Levine conducting Schoenberg's ``Gurre-Lieder'' and will close Sept. 13 with a concert by the St. Paul Orchestra under the direction of Pinchas Zukerman. The overall programming includes pop and jazz, and, unlike Tanglewood, something is played almost every night of the week. The Chicago Symphony is the primary musical tenant, but this summer Ravinia will be visited by such ensembles as the Tokyo String Quartet, the London Symphony, the Paul Winter Consort, and Sarah Vaughan.

Credit Mr. Levine, now in his 15th season as music director, and Edward Gordon, executive director, for a good selection of music and soloists, and programming that is rather bold, considering how many people have to be lured to Highland Park to make each program financially feasible.

The weekend I attended, Levine conducted three programs, including Mahler's Eighth (subtitled ``Symphony of a Thousand''), which was thrilling; an all-Schumann program that exuded lots of energy; a mixed-bag concert of Schubert songs, Schoenberg's ``Transfigured Night''; and the Rachmaninoff ``Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,'' complete with interruptions by noisy passing locomotives.

Few American orchestral festivals allow for sufficient rehearsal time. Therefore, it's interesting to hear how a conductor decides to tackle a given piece so that the weak spots do not shine through.

In the Mahler, Levine stressed rather frenetic tempos in the first movement, which gave it a propulsive drive right through to the final chord.

Then, in the second and final movement, where Mahler sets the final scene of Goethe's ``Faust,'' Levine settled down to give the music the sweep needed to encompass and project the visionary majesty of the score. The singing was, for the most part, ordinary, except for the pretty (and treacherously high-lying) tones made by soprano Marvis Martin, and the poetic, digified contributions of bass John Cheek.

In the next program, Levine and cellist Gary Hoffman managed to make perfect sense out of Schumann's less-than-consistent cello concerto - to me an impressive feat. This was preceded by a solid account of the Konzertst"uck for Four Horns, to show off the entire horn section of the orchestra (which did not disappoint).

Levine's way with same composer's ``Rhenish'' Symphony (No. 3 in E-flat, Op. 97) was expansive yet energetic - true to the joyous moods, without shirking the darker side of the music.

Programming novelty hit its apex with the Schubert song program - 10 favorites orchestrated by Reger, Brahms, Britten, and Liszt. Hermann Prey was the soloist, slightly distant of voice on this occasion, but still beautiful of tone and interpretively insightful.

The program closed with a sensational account of the Rachmaninoff Paganini Variations, with Stephen Hough the soloist. This winner of the 1983 Naumburg Piano Competition is an old-fashioned virtuoso in the very best sense of the word. Not only does he have the technique to toss off the work with dazzling ease, he has the ability to exploit the full color and tonal range of the piano, and the desire to get at the emotional content of the music. In all, a pianist in the grand style.

As if these programs didn't offer enough riches, two Murray Theater events proved equally impressive. First, there was a Schubert recital by Mr. Prey with Levine at the keyboard. Lucky is the singer to have this particular maestro as his accompanist - alert, nuanced, sensitive to the vocalist's needs, and a veritable orchestra at the keyboard.

Prey was in vintage form, getting under the skin of each song in the rather dour program and flooding the theater with the rich, warm baritone that has been his to command for so many years now.

Levine also headed a rousing performance of the Schumann Piano Quintet with violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg (much more impressive here than in her solo appearance at the Mostly Mozart Festival a scant week earlier), Mr. Hoffman on the cello, Nicholas Mann on second violin, and Michael Ouzounian the violinist. It was ad hoc chamber music of the finest order.

Clearly, Ravinia is an unusual place. Its critics have noted that quality could be higher, but I haven't heard better American summer orchestra programs in many years, and to be so close to a major city is really quite a pleasure.

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