Lang Lang the star at Chicago Symphony’s Ravinia opener but Eschenbach’s Berlioz strikes the most sparsk

July 08, 2011
By Bryant Manning

Conductor Christoph Eschenbach looks on as Lang Lang performs Thursday night at the Ravinia Festival. Photo: Todd Rosenberg/Ravinia Festival

By cultivating a golden moment from the not-so-distant past, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Ravinia safely launched their 75th summer partnership on Thursday night.

Former festival music director Christoph Eschenbach (1994–2005) and his superstar protege Lang Lang headlined a collaboration that brought many veteran ticket-holders back to that famous night 12 summers ago when the pianist’s international career was launched unexpectedly. On Thursday night the two paired for the Franz Liszt bicentennial, which might as well be Christmas morning for the dazzling Chinese-born pianist.

But the real fun didn’t begin until after intermission when Eschenbach, who by all accounts has wrapped up a successful inaugural season as director of the National Symphony Orchestra, led a feverishly wild account of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.

This was not Riccardo Muti’s Berlioz as heard last September. Eschenbach took a pleasingly unwieldy approach to this opium-charged masterpiece, and if his Italian colleague’s version will be remembered as polished and precise, Eschenbach’s seemed to be marked by more risk-taking and abandon.

The conductor held little back and offered up each of the various episodes of the opening movement with punch and bite. The rhythmic liberties he adopted neatly illustrated the unpredictably ecstatic dream sequence. The Ball was elegant but muscular, lifting it to almost epic dimensions. The Scene in the Country was slowly and even painstakingly developed before blossoming out to a gorgeous sonic bloom. Woodwinds were the stars all evening long, and the bassoons made bonafide CD material of the March to the Scaffold.

CSO Clarinetist John Bruce Yeh showed once again why the spastic Witches Sabbath solo has become his trademark in recent years, and he was bolstered by thrilling and cacophonous brass in the riveting finale. At the end of the performance one got a real sense of how innately weird and visionary this music is, even when it didn’t always hold together.

The program’s first half was traditionally more compact. Whatever one may think of Lang Lang’s showmanship, there is no denying his loving advocacy of the Romantic repertoire and how he clearly relishes playing under Eschenbach’s baton. The extended cantabile solo from Chopin’s Andante Spianato played out like a long soft kiss, with the maestro looking suitably bewitched from his podium. While Chopin helped liberate the piano from its 18th century shackles, his playful Grand polonaise brillante, Op. 22 is the closest he ever came to writing flotsam. Lang made child’s play of these silly little vignettes and received brilliantly charged support from the CSO. This was pure candy.

Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 showed Lang’s fine virtuosic gifts that won over listeners a decade ago. Even if a musical signpost was lost on the audience, there was Lang to physically reinforce each narrative transition. These brisk four movements seemed over before they started, with soloist and orchestra speedily telescoping the flourish-filled score into a single-movement rhapsody.

Lavished with a bouquet of flowers, Lang Lang was given a hero’s reception and coaxed out for a single encore. His fellow pianist, Eschenbach looked on proudly as Lang effortlessly threw off Berlioz’s Hungarian March, as transcribed and elaborated on by Vladimir Horowitz.

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