Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Ravinia Festival, June 29

The day of the conductor as minor deity and major dictator may be past, a victim of union work rules and changing times, but the guy with the stick is still the single most important part of the musical mix, capable of raising a mediocre ensemble to a good performance–or of keeping a great one from letting its light shine. It takes a certain amount of ego to be a conductor (even more than it takes to be a music critic), to insist on one’s own interpretation of the music and one’s own tempi, to make players and soloists bend to one’s will (in those cases where the often equally powerful soloist’s ego doesn’t win out).

The music director is even more vital than the hit-and-run visiting conductor: he–this is one area where the women’s movement hasn’t made much headway–must work with the administration to choose musical programs, select soloists and guest conductors, and generally guide the organization’s artistic way. The music director shapes the overall sound of the orchestra in various ways, auditioning new players, making seating arrangements, guiding repertory.

At Ravinia the music director is expected to be more than most: recitalist, accompanist, and teacher–as well as principal summertime conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He must take the foreground role of soloist/colleague in chamber music, the less spotlighted role of accompanying and assisting other artists in their solo endeavors, and the patient role of educating, encouraging, and occasionally discouraging the upcoming generation of musicians. Of course in a larger sense these are things any conductor should be doing with an orchestra–the orchestra, after all, is the conductor’s chosen instrument; under his guidance it accompanies soloists, and his selection of musical programming educates as well as entertains an audience–but the duties are more explicit and less abstract at Ravinia.

Christoph Eschenbach, who made his first appearance in his new position last Thursday night, is a good choice on all levels. As odd as it may seem, he’s only the third music director in the Ravinia Festival’s 60-year history, following Seiji Ozawa (1964-1968) and James Levine (1972-1993). From 1959 to 1963 Walter Hendl, an assistant conductor with the CSO, was “artistic director,” but he finally quit in frustration because the job he thought would be mostly conducting turned out to be primarily administration. Before he had the job a nonprofessional committee of trustees made the artistic decisions, with understandably dull and unimaginative results.

Levine, whose tenure encompassed more than a third of the festival’s history, casts the largest shadow. He arrived at age 28, a cherubic ball of energy with a lot of ideas on how to revitalize Ravinia: preconcert recitals, a concentration on particular groups of composers and styles each year, creative programming, master classes, and other educational efforts–innovations that were later expanded upon. In later years he was criticized for spreading himself too thin, for giving Ravinia too little time, and for sometimes inadequate preparation. He was also too often prone to hire from his own stable of soloists, sometimes without regard to suitability for a given work. But he’s still a formidable act to follow, given both his playing and conducting.

Eschenbach, first known as a pianist–he made his Ravinia debut in that role in 1973–was a natural choice for the position: his tastes are catholic, he’s a fine soloist, and he works well with the CSO and Ravinia managements. So it was no particular surprise when his appointment was announced. He’s like Levine in his musicianship and his eclecticism, though he’s angular where Levine is chubby and favors crisp tempi where Levine prefers breath-defyingly slow ones. Eschenbach is not a conductor-as-dancer in the Leonard Bernstein and Michael Tilson Thomas mold, but he’s not stolid either. He’s clearly thought things out in every work he conducts, knows where he’s going and how to get there. He would probably be a delight to work with: he throws clear cues, maintains the beat, and doesn’t leave anything to guesswork. One may disagree with such a conductor’s interpretations, but at least he leaves one in no doubt about what they are.

Last Thursday Eschenbach, looking like Jean-Luc Picard, offered a varied program. These days it’s obligatory to make audiences sit through some “music of our time” in exchange for letting them hear the works they’re really interested in. Christopher Rouse’s Phaethon, though egregiously cacophonous, had the virtue of being less than ten minutes long. Rouse likes percussion: the program noted that the score calls for (along with brass, woodwinds, and strings) “timpani, two bongos, two timbales, snare drum, tenor drum, four tom-toms, bass drum, three metal plates, tamtam, Chinese cymbal, suspended cymbal, flexatone, a pair of cymbals, metal vibraslap, thunder sheet, rute, maracas, claves, wood block, piccolo wood block, guiro, slapstick, sandpaper blocks, xylophone, giant ratchet, hammer…” If Rouse hasn’t sought sponsorship from some percussionists’ trade group, he’s missing a bet. As far as I could tell, it was played well; the best part was watching percussionist Patricia Dash heft a giant mallet and smite the floor with it.

The first half’s main attraction was violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg in Bruch’s Violin Concerto no. 1. Salerno-Sonnenberg, clad in black trousers and a jacket in a shade of pink not found in nature, is Miss Mannerisms: she grimaced, worked her mouth, bobbed, bounced, and swayed as she played, then struck poses whenever she wasn’t playing for a few measures. Her playing was self-indulgent, sometimes tonally precarious, and occasionally sloppy, particularly in some of the runs near the end of the piece. She’s past being a prodigy (you can tell wunderkinder have moved to adult status when their ages are no longer listed in the program), and it’s time for her to work a little harder at being a mature artist.

The high point of the program–and moment-of-truth time for Eschenbach–came in the second half, with Mahler’s Symphony no. 5. For many of us the CSO is indelibly identified with the music of Mahler; indeed, the orchestra could probably do it more than passably without a conductor–which would be like the Orpheus Chamber Symphony on steroids. No need: Eschenbach has the chops for this music.

The symphony opened with a superb–no, make that perfect–trumpet solo by assistant principal Mark Ridenour. He was ably seconded by principal horn player Dale Clevenger–indeed, by all of his colleagues, particularly in the brass section. There were a few glitches here and there, but that’s the price you pay for live performance. This was the CSO at its best, making the most of its strengths, doing the kind of playing that justifies the “world’s greatest orchestra” hype. Even a train clanging through–predictably enough in the evening’s most sublime moment–couldn’t kill the effect.

Eschenbach, who conducted without a score, was succinct, understated, and economical in his gestures, letting them suit the musical mood. They grew larger as the music did, and at several points he seemed to levitate above the podium. His tempi and dynamics were carefully chosen and entirely appropriate. It was one of the most exciting evenings I can remember at Ravinia, and it bodes well for his tenure at the festival.