Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conductor Rafael Payare and pianist Emanuel Ax gave bravo performances at Ravinia Festival Aug. 2, 2019.
Payare, a Venezuelan conductor who has led ensembles and orchestras across the globe and will lead the San Diego Symphony as its new music director this fall, infused Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 with extra exuberance and sensitivity to its Napoleonic themes.
Although the themes are familiar to classical musical lovers, Eroica in less able hands has sometimes come across as too predictable and automatically played. But when Payare opened the symphony by (I think appropriately) upping the pace on the Allegro con brio, there was a new feeling of excitement stretching across the Pavilion and lawn.
It was in perfect contrast to what became the very expressive Marcia funebre movement in C minor followed by the CSO strings’ nimble and delightful Scherzo that went back to the symphony’s key of E-flat major.
During the symphony, the cameras for ravinia’s screens’ focused on the orchestra’s exceptional oboist, flutist and French horns.
They deserved the extra acknowledgement accorded them by Payare after the heroic symphony’s exuberant final notes drew enthusiastic applause.
This interpretation of Beethoven’s epic, groundbreaking symphony was among the best I’ve heard.
It would take another epic performance to complement the first half the program.
And that is what Ax delivered with his extraordinary Brahm’s Concerto No. 2 in B –flat major.
Back at Ravinia for his 28th appearance since 1975, the 70-year-old Ax still has the powerful hands, agile fingers and emotion variations that won the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in Tel Aviv in the 1974 and the Avery Fisher Prize in New York City in 1979.
Among the finest pianists of our time, Ax appeared to be having a love affair with the piano (or with Brahms) on Friday.
From hands crossing to land powerful chords and fingers flying across the keys to their producing lyrical waterfalls and gentle caresses, Ax married technique with sensitivity.
What audiences may not recall is that Brahms pays homage in Piano Concerto No. 2 to another instrument he likes to write for, the cello. In notes on the work, Brahms calls the section of the Andante that features a cello solo, a “concerto within a concerto.”
Ax is familiar with Brahms piano cello pairings. As a frequent partner with cellist Yo Yo Ma, the duo has won several Grammy Awards for their Brahms recordings.
As the strains of the last notes of Brahms second piano concerto echoed through the Pavilion, the audience rose, almost as one body, applauding loudly and long.
The double bill of bravo performances made Friday at Ravinia a night to remember.
(Friday was the second night to feature Beethoven symphonies and Brahms concertos. Thursday’s concert was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor followed by pianist Yefim Bronfman playing Brahms’ Concerto No. 1 in D minor.)
For more Ravinia concerts visit Ravinia/Calendar.