The Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed for a packed house on Saturday night at its summer home, the Ravinia Festival, and even the vast lawn was brimming with picnickers.
The world-class orchestra opened the evening with Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). Two celebrated Ravinia regulars returned to the Festival; pianist Peter Serkin performed for his 23rd season, and world-renowned conductor Christoph Eschenbach led the CSO with his emotional, emphatic direction.
The Brahms concerto (c.1858) consisted of a multitude of moods, from celebratory to somber. The violin section demonstrated their versatile abilities when they played triumphant passages that instantly became sweet and lyrical, enhanced by exposed oboe and horn solos. Serkin played the sweeping arpeggiated chords with meditative beauty, but brought the most feeling to the cadenza at the end of the first movement, and the energetic finale to the third.
The second half of the concert presented the main attraction, Antonin Dvořák’s (1841-1904) Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, (“From the New World”). The Czech composer was in the “New World” itself when writing the symphony; he conducted his previous Symphony No. 8 in August of 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and was inspired to write his ninth that year while residing in the rolling hills of Iowa.
The first movement, especially, presented the composer’s portrayal of the musical melting pot of America, as one could catch glimpses of Eastern European, English, and Celtic-sounding melodies. The CSO demonstrated the ability to transition seamlessly from luscious string lines to sharp accentual punctuations, driven by the percussion section.
The English horn soloist, Scott Hosteltler, produced a beautifully lyrical, warm tone in the second movement, “Largo,” that is emblematic of the pastoral mood. The reoccurring chord progression, first stated by the brass opening, later repeated in a less densely orchestrated choir of woodwinds and solo horn, and closing the movement by brass again, became familiar and nostalgic. The CSO brought a dynamic sense of forward motion to idyllic landscape that Dvořák painted.
The third movement, “Scherzo: Molto vivace,” became more overtly energetic and featured the intricate brilliance of the CSO’s violin and woodwind trills and majestic brass statements.
The final movement, “Allegro con fuoco,” highlighted the strength of the CSO brass section. The trumpets produced impeccably tuned, crisp fanfares, and the horn and low brass section provided the backbone of power. The element of the percussion, especially the timpani, brought the excitement to its true height. Principal horn player Dale Clevenger effortlessly soared melodically in the numerous, high-range solos, and the brass as a whole appeared united in strength and power that arguably tops previous seasons at Ravinia. Eschenbach conducted this final coda with passion that was evident in his grand, flourishing movements.