Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Ravinia Festival, August 13

For an opera company, programming is pretty straightforward: you need a mix of chestnuts and novelties, masterworks and divertissments–along with a smattering of stars that help sell the shows that don’t sell themselves. For an orchestra, it’s more complex. Since symphonic works that fill an evening by themselves are relatively rare, the music director (and his friends in the business office) must find works that are complementary or contrasting in mood, style, or the forces they require.

Sometimes the choice depends on the soloists available, sometimes on the amount of rehearsal time allotted. If you have a major second-half piece it makes sense to program, say, a minor Mozart or Haydn symphony in the first half, something the players can do well with minimal rehearsal. If you’re dealing with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra you have to bear in mind that the entire concert (with a few contractual exceptions) can’t run more than two and a half hours.

The equation is further complicated by the unwritten requirement that an example of what’s loosely known as “music of our time” (which can be more than a half century old if it’s sufficiently hideous) be included in almost every concert. Such programming, ostensibly there to “educate the public,” always comes before the big number the audience is really there to hear.

Outdoor summertime programming, with its generally lighter fare, used to be pretty easy: pops nights, Tchaikovsky nights (real cannon work better alfresco, and they give the groundlings a thrill), Beethoven nights-all featuring a Greatest Hits approach. There are still pops nights, though many of them seem to exist primarily to allow folks to hear their favorite film sound tracks performed live, but things have changed in the last couple of decades. Rossini overtures have largely given way to tougher stuff: Bruckner and Mahler, once heard only in hardtop halls and then only rarely, are now routinely played in leafy realms where an occasional infant squall is the least of the distractions.

Cristoph Eschenbach, Ravinia’s new music director, showed himself to be an ambitious and skilled programmer with this Sunday-night concert. He began by exploring the depths of human despair and worked up to nothing less than the reaffirmation of the human spirit, a crescendo of hope and triumph. The combination of Schoenberg’s A Survivor From Warsaw, Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody, and Mahler’s Symphony no. 2 was incredibly affecting. So far Eschenbach’s programming and conducting abilities make him an inspired choice for music director.

Twelve-tone composition is admirably suited to portraying insanity, despondency, and cruelty, but these do not, fortunately, come close to limning the human experience. Yet since few subjects are uglier than the Holocaust, Schoenberg’s music works very well for A Survivor From Warsaw.

Sprechstimme–rhythmically notated chanted words–is another failed modern experiment. It can be effective for a line or two, but when used more than that it loses its impact. A Survivor From Warsaw would probably be more interesting if more of it were sung instead of chanted, though considering Schoenberg’s usual vocal lines, declaiming may be healthier for the baritone. Still, this ten-minute work caries a tremendous emotional wallop, with a particularly moving moment at the end when the men’s chorus enters with the words, “Sh’ma, Yisroel, adonoi elohenu, adonoi echod” (Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one).

Eschenbach chose to move straight from this to the Alto Rhapsody, which also uses a men’s chorus. A Survivor From Warsaw is a report on depravity and despair that ends by edging toward the possibility of the divine. The Alto Rhapsody, with a text by Goethe, is a Werther-like account of unrequited love, but by placing it in the context of Schoenberg and Mahler’s works Eschenbach made it universal. Here its concluding lines–“If there is in your Psalter, Father of Love, one melody audible to his ear, then revive his heart! Open his unclouded eyes on the thousand fountains beside the thirsting one in the desert”–evoked a biblical setting.

The second half of the program was Mahler’s great Resurrection Symphony, which carries a message of hope sorely needed in the waning years of a century that has seen the seemingly endless genocidal slaughter of Armenians, kulaks, Gypsies, Jews, Cambodians, Rwandans, Bosnian Muslims. Mahler works through the darkness and despondency and emerges with some of the most exalted music ever written and a message of eternal life: “Oh believe: you were not born for nothing! You have neither lived nor suffered for nothing! Arise, yes, you will rise again, my heart, in an instant! What you have conquered will bear you up to God.”

Eschenbach made this a response to the sorrow expressed in the first half, and thereby made the impact of the symphony even greater than it would have been by itself or paired with a nice little Haydn symphony. I can recall few evenings so well constructed or so effective.

Eschenbach was well supported by his vocal and instrumental forces. Baritone Richard Cohn as the narrator in A Survivor From Warsaw came to the rescue for an ill Thomas Allen. Soprano Barbara Bonney is always a pleasure to hear, with her intelligent delivery and purity of tone; her heartfelt reading of the resurrection music carried unusual conviction.

She was well matched with contralto Janis Taylor, Taylor has a good, rich voice, though a somewhat covered tone that she should open up just a tad. But she displayed a deep understanding of the words and music and the emotions they conveyed in both the Alto Rhapsody and the Mahler. (Both women sang without scores.) The Chicago Symphony Chorus under chorus master Duain Wolfe continues to dazzle.

So does Eschenbach, with his crisp, precise movements and absolute clarity of intention. He took some portions of the Mahler faster than conductors usually do, but it all worked nicely. He made the most of the dynamic possibilities, which meant that some softer portions were drowned out by passing aircraft and the cicada obbligato, and the louder parts forced some people around me to cover their ears. The only real disappointment or the evening was coconcertmaster Ruben Gonzalez’s decidedly mediocre violin solos in the Mahler.

The new seat cushions in the pavilion are a welcome change, and happily they don’t seem to have any negative effect on the acoustics. Given the heat, the cushions probably saved a few audience members from sliding to the floor.