The Annual Tchaikovsky Spectacular at Ravinia Review- Cannons Boom and Music Swirls

On July 16th, 2016, Conductor Dimitri (Dima) Slobodeniouk led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) and pianist Simon Trpčeski in an all-Tchaikovsky program at The Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, Illinois. All of the pieces performed are strong, resonant, stunningly well crafted and of course, colorfully orchestrated, as one would expect from the Russian master, but the finale was instantly recognizable and thrilling, shot through with live cannon on the spacious lawn outside the Pavilion.

Conductor Dima Slobodeniouk; photo courtesy of The Ravinia Festival

The evening was glorious, the lush lawns dotted with people and sculpture – this reviewer noted several large whimsical Fernando Botero pieces amid the catered picnics. The flowers were in bloom and so was the CSO, working hard on a very demanding and dramatic repertoire.

 

Russian-born Slobodeniouk, Principal Conductor of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Sibelius Festival, and Music Director of the Orquestra Sinfónica de Galicia, made a strong debut this night at Ravinia, bringing a fierce concentration and sweeping sensitivity to his conducting. Macedonian classical pianist Simon Trpčeski is a captivating and intense performer who plays with wit, verve and enthusiasm.

Crowds outside the Pavilion at Ravinia; photo by Debra Davy

 The concert began with the passionate, baroque and lovely  "Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture," TH 42, 1869, which opens with a calm and stately clarinet/bassoon melody that heralds and shepherds in the complete musical depiction of the tale of the ill-fated lovers. Next, the strings tell a violent and tragic melody; the well-developed and well- renowned love theme enters; the two are interspersed. Finally, the piece achieves a beauteous and stunning climax, before quieting to a sad, abrupt ending- much like the immortal tale.

 

Next, the Steinway was brought up, the pianist entered, and the CSO leapt into the complex and dramatic “Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor”, Op. 23, 1874-1875. The beloved concerto, a standard at piano competitions, was absolutely staggering, as were the views the audience was given on the large adjacent screens in the Pavilion. Sometimes one could see the rapt face above the pianist’s curved flying fingers, sometimes the view was from above, the pristine open piano with Trpčeski’s hands ranging over the keys. At one point, he leant forward, grasped the piano case with his left hand while his right labored lovingly in the upper register. This fine artist certainly gave the audience a lot of sound, but never overplayed, modulating the loudest portions to the Pavilion, the Orchestra, and the instrument. The tempo was fast, but the delivery thoughtful, and the CSO had every note in place.

Pianist Simon Trpčeski; photo courtesy of the Ravinia Festival

After the intermission, the CSO launched into “Francesca da Rimini”, Op. 32, 1876, with Slobodeniouk superbly in control of the drama, and the CSO producing a strong erotic flavor in the central love theme.The symphonic poem  The Orchestra built gradually into a frank depiction of Dante’s Inferno, achieving a marvelous tension. The last movement was shocking but reflective, a demonstration of life punished yet also saddened by fate.

 

The 1812 Festival Overture in E flat major,” Op. 49, 1880, was composed to commemorate Russia’s defense of the invading armies of Napoleon Bonaparte- NOT the U.S. War of 1812, as many people suppose. It’s one of Tchaikovsky’s most well-known and popular works, along with his famous ballets, “The Nutcracker”, “Swan Lake”, and “Sleeping Beauty”. Frequently heard as an introduction or accompaniment to fireworks, the piece begins with a Russian melody, “O Lord, Save Thy People”, and moves through “a mixture of pastoral and martial themes portraying the increasing distress of the Russian people at the hands of the invading French”. Some music analysts have interpreted this festival overture as an almost literal account of the war campaign, containing as it does repeated bits of both the anthem from “God Save the Tsar” and “La Marseillaise”, the French National Anthem.

The audience gathering on the lawn at The Ravinia Festival; photo by Debra Davy

However, the stirring and triumphant masterpiece “is best known for its climactic volley of cannon fire, ringing chimes and brass fanfare finale”. This night the volley seemed louder and longer than in years’ past. The audience at The Ravinia Festival was roused to laughter and cheers of “hooray” as the guns boomed. The smoke ascended and wafted through the Pavilion, along with flying birds as the intent Orchestra members worked hard to bring this dynamic piece to fruition. The seemingly triumphant visage of Dima Slobodeniouk could be seen on the large screens flanking the stage as he brought the concert to a flourishing end.

Cannons ready to blast; photo by Barb Keer

For information about and tickets to all the wonderful concerts at The Ravinia Festival, go to the Ravinia Festival website

 

For information and tickets to all the fine programs of The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, go to the CSO website

 

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