Conlon, Chicago Symphony make beautiful night music with Mahler at Ravinia

July 27, 2013
By Dennis Polkow

James Conlon conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 Thursday night at Ravinia.

There is something about summer and Mahler: they go so well together. Always busy conducting during the year, Mahler would turn to composition only during the summer months. As such, even the genesis of Mahler’s grandest creations were a byproduct of the season.

Ravinia and Mahler have a long summer association as well; Mahler is a favorite composer of former Ravinia music directors James Levine and Christoph Eschenbach as well as current music director James Conlon.

In fact, Mahler was part of Conlon’s CSO debut weekend at Ravinia back in 1977. He actually performed the Mahler Seventh Symphony — the same work that he conducted Thursday night at Ravinia with the Chicago Symphony — 34 years ago with the CSO as part of a mostly Levine-conducted complete Mahler cycle. That would be a feat Conlon himself would repeat during his first years as music director, although across multiple seasons.

An abstract and dark work, the Seventh has the reputation of being Mahler’s most difficult and least accessible symphony. Yet one would never suspect so given the ease with which Conlon and the CSO scaled it on Thursday night.

From Michael Mulcahy’s opening tenor horn lament (played on a euphonium) to Daniel Gingrich’s French horn traversals there was palpable foreboding, which carried over into the concerto-like sections where musical bits were tossed around with effortless evocation.

The dark viola solos were taken by Li-Kuo Chang and Stephanie Jeong played the violin solos with aplomb. Yet even the overall string sound was remarkably warm, lyrical and Viennese, no doubt in part due to Conlon’s virtual career-long familiarity with the work, but also an apparent byproduct of Riccardo Muti’s constant emphasis on this aspect of the CSO’s music making.

What was really interesting is how much more delightfully quirky this particular performance was than Conlon’s past CSO readings of it. There was much dark humor exuded throughout the work.

Although allowing the pastoral instrumentation of clanging cow bells, guitar and mandolin to sound organic within the fabric of Mahler’s collage-like orchestral texture is no small feat, Conlon and company managed to do so seamlessly.

There is often the temptation to let the CSO brass take boundless flight for the crowning chorale sections of the finale, but the texture remained sculpted and transparent enough for the winds to cut through as the orchestration would suggest. The dynamic pullbacks and contrasting string sections were delightfully done with nuance and a darkly distinctive sense of humor.

The perfect weather and enfolding cloak of night took the piece from opening against a gentle soundscape of chirping crickets and cloud-striped luminous purple and pink twilight to a gradual descent into darkness that managed to kick in, appropriately enough, during the middle Nachtmusik sections.

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