Stirring Beethoven at Ravinia, Sizzling Shostakovich at Grant Park

July 20, 2009

Friday night's Grant Park Music Festival concert at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park brought a host of debuts, and thrilling debuts they were.

The Grant Park Orchestra will have to work hard next month to top the gripping performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony that Ravinia offered as the cornerstone of its annual benefit on Saturday.

Clear, cool skies and the lure of the composer's monumental hymn to universal brotherhood filled the pavilion and much of the lawn with a sea of happy humanity. The women's board gala raised more than $1 million.

Everyone from the tuxedoed swells in the pavilion to the lawn chair brigade seemed caught up in the occasion, which reached its apogee in the finale, a grand choral setting of Schiller's "Ode to Joy." Here, the giant video screens served a useful purpose, furnishing a running translation of the German text beneath images of the solo singers, Chicago Symphony Orchestra and conductor James Conlon.

The music director kept the symphonic drama pressing forward in an unbroken arc from the inchoate darkness of the opening pages to the blazing affirmation of the Schiller ode. The tensile strength of the opening movement gave way to a truculent Scherzo to a flowing Adagio.

The rousing effect of the choral ode resulted as much from superior singing by Duain Wolfe's Chicago Symphony Chorus and a well-balanced quartet of vocal soloists as the stalwart power of the CSO.

Bass Morris Robinson was rock-solid and commanding in his entry. The radiant soprano Erin Wall handled the awkward leaps of her solo part with ease. She was well-matched with Kelley O'Connor's warm mezzo in their concerted passages. Anthony Dean Griffey wrapped his jaunty lines in a hearty tenoral bear-hug.

The evening's other vocal soloist, Jessye Norman, did not sing at all but, rather, served as narrator for Copland's "Lincoln Portrait," part of Ravinia's tribute to the Lincoln bicentennial. She spoke the text with dignity, grandeur and a palpable sense of pride, qualities that also marked Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man," which began the program.

Friday night's Grant Park Music Festival concert at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park brought a host of debuts, and thrilling debuts they were.

New to the roster were Ukrainian conductor Kirill Karabits and Canadian violinist Karen Gomyo. Mark well their names because you are going to hear a lot more from these gifted young musicians in the coming years.

Karabits, soon to take over as principal conductor of England's Bournemouth Symphony, showed in the suite from Khatchaturian's tuneful, if musically cheap, "Spartacus" ballet and the orchestral part to the Shostakovich First Violin Concerto how well he could galvanize the orchestra on limited rehearsal. He is a first-rate artist of real musical command.

So, for that matter, is Gomyo, whose probing account of the Shostakovich concerto carried tremendous vitality, brilliance and intensity.

Valentin Silvestrov's "Serenade of Parting," a six-minute string piece written in memory of Karabits' father, composer and conductor Ivan Karabits, opened the program.

John von Rhein, Sun Sentinel