at Ravinia Festival

August 20 and 21

Seldom have concerts at Ravinia or at Grant Park been as poorly attended as they have been in recent weeks; it has simply been too hot for people to sit and listen comfortably to a concert. Last weekend’s cooling spell brought not only heat relief, but musical relief as well, when the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra made its way into the Ravinia pavilion for two concerts under guest conductor Kurt Masur.

The Israel Philharmonic was a very popular attraction during its debut appearance at Ravinia two years ago, a stop on its 50th anniversary tour with music director Zubin Mehta, but unfortunately the playing of the ensemble didn’t live up to the event itself. Given the extraordinary quality of the Philharmonic’s performances last weekend under Masur, it is now obvious that the problems two years ago emanated from Mehta, not the Philharmonic.

Here in Chicago we have an orchestra that is so good it is literally better than most of the conductors that stand before it. Here we are used to seeing conductors struggle to match the quality of our orchestra, to take full advantage of its enormous range of power, timbre, and expression.

The Israel Philharmonic is a wonderful orchestra, improving all the time, but it has hardly reached its full potential. If this is not yet a world-class orchestra, under the tutelage of a conductor like Masur it could become one very soon. It was fascinating to watch the intense concentration and discipline of the musicians doing their best to rise to the occasion of having Masur, one of only a handful of the world’s truly great conductors, lead them so carefully. If Masur’s vision and the Philharmonic’s execution didn’t always mesh perfectly, it certainly was not due to lack of effort on the part of the Israelis, only to their lack of experience with solid musical direction.

Saturday evening’s concert began at the unusual time of 8:45 PM, 15 minutes later than usual, to accommodate the full setting of the sun on the Jewish Sabbath. It was one of those picture-perfect nights that restores one’s faith in the unique charm of outdoor concerts.

The concert opened with Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave Overture, which was delightfully played and given a refreshingly light touch by Masur, who never let the sound or the work’s effects overpower. Orchestral balance, always a Masur characteristic, was brought out with precision, as were the work’s themes; Masur brought them out of the orchestral color in sharp relief, but always with subtlety and taste. If the performance lacked some of the brilliance we are used to hearing with the CSO, its character more than compensated.

Anyone who has ever heard Masur conduct Haydn knows to expect a large 19th-century-style sound, and his performance of the Haydn Symphony no. 104 in D Major (London) was no exception. The forces were large and the tempos were slow, but as is always so amazing with Masur, his control held it all together and made his approach seem appropriate. When romantic conductors such as Georg Solti or Erich Leinsdorf perform Haydn, they too get a large sound and take the works slowly, but ensemble playing and orchestral balance usually fall by the wayside. Not so with Masur–even the woodwinds were highly audible and only rarely drowned out by overvibratoed strings.

With Masur, Haydn’s influence on Beethoven becomes readily apparent in the often overlooked (especially in most period-instrument interpretations) tension-and-release aspect of this music. The playful syncopation of the work was skillfully played up, and the performance had a wonderful driving energy to it. If Haydn has to be heard in a 19th-century performance style, this is the way to hear it–the overall architecture of the work was never as clear.

Many of us who were fortunate enough to hear Masur conduct the Chicago Symphony in all four of the Brahms symphonies at Ravinia a few seasons ago will never forget the experience–it bordered on the mystical. If the Israel Philharmonic was not as precise as the CSO in its performance of Brahms’s First Symphony, it was every bit as expressive and responsive. This was a very poetic reading of the work, emphasizing warmth and balance. Although it didn’t dazzle, the Philharmonic admirably brought off the work’s most subtle effects, never losing sight of its structure.

There were, however, some problems–flat oboe and violin solos in the second movement, a flat bassoon in the third, and some particularly sloppy ensembling between the horns and low winds, also in the third movement. Clearly the Philharmonic’s strings are its greatest strength, but both the brass and winds are presently below world-class standards.

Sunday afternoon’s concert, under a beautiful sunny and bright blue sky, began with another Haydn symphony, the Sixth, also in D major (Le matin). Written more than 30 years before Symphony no. 104, the earlier work still has one foot firmly planted in the baroque era. To bring this out, Masur employed harpsichord continuo throughout the work, although again, his conception of the work was far from baroque or early classical–this was a grand romantic conception, complete with large forces and slow tempi.

For some reason, the Philharmonic’s playing was far better Saturday night; Sunday afternoon the strings had a tendency to overplay, seemingly forgoing the somewhat lighter touch with which they had performed earlier. There was also too much vibrato present in the playing of the concertmaster, which in turn influenced several of the other first violins. The delayed syncopation between the horns and strings in the finale was, however, very well executed, to marvelous effect.

Beethoven’s presence had been so keenly felt the night before–so anticipated in the Haydn symphony, so imitated in the Brahms–it seemed only fitting to hear from Beethoven himself, which we did in the form of his monumental Fifth Symphony.

There is an old story that Wilhelm Furtwangler was once asked how he conducted the downbeat of the Fifth’s infamous opening fournote theme, arguably the hardest downbeat to bring off accurately in all of music. “Well,” he answered, “I have the first violinist stand up and circle his chair three times, sitting down each time.

The moment he sits down and looks like he’s ready to begin, bam, we all start.”

Masur’s downbeat reminded me very much of that story–it was totally out of left field (after long waits for a screaming infant and an airplane) and took most of the orchestra completely by surprise. Thus the entrance was, as is so often the case, a ragged one. The orchestra did recover quickly, although the performance in general was marred by some poor ensembling and flat playing across the brass and winds, and even sometimes by the strings. Nonetheless, this was a terrifically exciting performance, enjoyable despite its flaws. It was interesting to see the orchestra working so hard to bring forth Masur’s vision, even when they were slightly less than successful.

Mussorgsky’s piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition has been subjected to every conceivable form of arrangement–transcriptions for synthesizers and for rock group (with lyrics!), and several orchestrations, the most famous and interesting being the one by Ravel.

The rarely heard orchestration by the late-20th-century Soviet conductor Sergei Gorchakov is really more of a curiosity than a concert piece, so closely does it resemble Ravel’s orchestration of the same work.

Gorchakov’s opening “promenade,” or walking theme, begins, as does Ravel’s, with a solo trumpet that is answered by the strings, but Gorchakov’s restatements are reinforced with lower brasses as well. As it turned out, Masur chose to take a very brisk “walk” through the exhibition, although not inappropriately.

As for the individual “pictures,” musical tributes by Mussorgsky to a late artist friend based on a memorial exhibition, most were well played, although the brass segments seemed to suffer the most, lacking luster and brilliance, and sometimes even note accuracy and correct pitch.

Most of Gorchakov’s changes are minor revisions of Ravel–a muted trumpet instead of saxophone for the lead droning melody of “The Old Castle,” added octaves and overtones for the strings in the “Unhatched Chickens,” glockenspiels and triangles for added color, especially in the finale, “The Great Gate of Kiev.” Perhaps with the exception of “Chickens,” which was clever enough that Masur made a repeat of that section his encore, these changes seemed not so much improvements as unnecessary alterations.

Still, Masur should be congratulated for finding a new way to perform something so familiar, and the Israel Philharmonic should be congratulated for so attentively rising to the occasion of having a great conductor lead them down a solid musical path. Let us hope it is a path that they will continue to explore.