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Tan Dun’s ‘Water Passion,’ Levine’s return highlight Ravinia’s summer classical lineup

Submitted by on Jun 8, 2016 – 10:40 pm

Preview: James Levine will lead the Chicago Symphony in Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony, reprising his Ravinia debut 45 years ago. 
By Anne E. Johnson

The Chicago premiere of Tan Dun’s “Water Passion after Saint Matthew,” the return of conductor James Levine with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and a multi-concert observance of the 100th anniversary of the birth of famed choral conductor Robert Shaw loom large among highlights of the 2016 Ravinia Festival.

Written in 2000 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the death of Bach, Tan Dun’s “Water Passion” (June 10) features 17 transparent water bowls lit from below and sundry other percussion instruments, voices, cello, and violin. It will be performed by the Los Angeles Master Chorale singing in a mixture of styles inspired by Bach chorales and traditional and classical Asian music including the overtone singing of Mongolia and the high-pitch writing of Peking Opera. The sounds of stones and water are also abundant throughout.

Former Ravinia Festival music director James LevineJames Levine is scheduled to preside over Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor (“Resurrection”) at the festival’s 50th gala benefit evening July 23 in a historic return. Levine conducted the same work at his Ravinia debut 45 years ago, when he was called in at the last minute to substitute for István Kertész, who was ailing.

It was June 1971, the same month as his Metropolitan Opera debut in a festival performance of “Tosca,” and the beginning of one of the highest-profile conducting careers of the 20th century, leading to long tenures at both institutions. He was music director at Ravinia from 1973 to 1993 and at the Met from 1976 until the end of this season, when his increasingly severe injuries and health problems forced him to shed responsibilities. His soloists in the Mahler will be soprano Ying Fang and mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill.

Violinist Nicola Benedetti with Wynton Marsalis, jazz artist and composer of a new violin concerto.The Chicago Symphony Orchestra begins its 80th Ravinia residency July 12 with the American premiere of a violin concerto by jazz musician Wynton Marsalis. Cristian Măcelaru conducts, with violinist Nicola Benedetti. She also performed the world premiere of the work, with the London Symphony Orchestra, in November 2015.

Among other CSO highlights:
  •  “The Planets: An HD Odyssey.” This film features images from NASA’s most recent mission. The high-definition screening is accompanied by Holst’s set of symphonic poems “The Planets.” Măcelaru conducts. (July13)
  • Sketch of the 'Firebird.' (Handspring Puppet Company)Stravinsky’s “The Firebird” will be staged by the Handspring Puppet Company, creators of the Tony Award winning stageplay “War Horse.” See a sneak preview video by the puppet-makers, below. The “Firebird” project is a co-commission with the Wolf Trap Foundation, Hollywood Bowl, Philadelphia’s Mann Center, Saratoga Performing Arts Center and the Sun Valley Summer Symphony, so this show will be making the rounds in July and August. The Ravinia concert, conducted by Ben Gernon in his CSO debut, also includes Debussy’s “La mer” and Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from “Peter Grimes.” (July 26)
  • Renowned pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet plays Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2, with Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 in E minor completing the program conducted by Vasily Petrenko. (July 20)
  • One of the biggest Hollywood blockbusters of all time, “Titanic,” is celebrated as much for its soundtrack as for its tragic romance. The CSO, under Ludwig Wicki, plays the late James Horner’s Oscar-winning score as the film is screened. (July 29, 30)
  • David Zinman leads the CSO in the Second Symphonies of Bernstein (“The Age of Anxiety” with pianist Misha Dichter) and Brahms. (Aug. 9)

Mei-Ann Chen, music director of the SinfoniettaOver-arching themes of Ravinia 2016 include water and music. Handel’s “Water Music” Suite is an obvious requirement in this category. The Chicago Sinfonietta, conducted by Mei-Ann Chen, performs the Baroque favorite on June 16 with area high school instrumentalists lending their talents.

An intriguing quasi-theatrical work on deck is “An Unlikely Muse: The Last Inspiration of Johannes Brahms” (Aug. 30), with a script by Harry Clark. Actor Jack Gilpin portrays the virtuoso clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, who often played at the home of Robert and Clara Schumann and inspired a late burst of creativity by Brahms. Clarinetist David Shifrin, pianist André Watts and the Ariel Quartet illuminate the spoken text with several works for clarinet that Brahms wrote for Mühlfeld.

This year’s festival also pays tribute to one of the great choral directors in American history. Robert Shaw would have turned 100 in 2016. In his honor, Ravinia is drawing attention to various types of choral works. Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers” is performed by The Singers under the direction of Matthew Culloton (June 15). Famed a cappella group and frequent Chicago visitors Chanticleer present “Over the Moon,” a collection of songs ranging from Monteverdi and Josquin des Prez to American popular standards (July 19) .

Violinist Midori will organize an evening of chamber music at Ravinia. (©Timothy Greenfield-Sanders)Chamber music is traditionally a major force at Ravinia. The Juilliard String Quartet (June 27) plays Mozart’s “Dissonant” Quartet, the Chicago premiere of Richard Wernick’s Quartet No. 9, and, with the addition of cellist Astrid Schween, Schubert’s String Quintet in C. Violinist Midori has put together a program with friends called “Mozart and More” (July 6), which will include chamber works by Mozart, Dohnányi, and Brahms.

Completion is the focus for many of this year’s chamber concerts and solo recitals. The Emerson String Quartet plays all six of the quartet’s included in Haydn’s Op. 76 (July 5). And Bartók, whose quartet output is much more manageable in size than Haydn’s, gets a thorough treatment from the Chiara String Quartet. In a two-night series (Sept. 7-8) called “Bartók by Heart,” the Chiara will play all six of Bartók’s quartets – from memory.

Jonathan Biss

String quartets are not the only genre being presented in full. The theme extends to solo works. Adolfo Gutierrez Arenas performs all five of Beethoven’s Cello Sonatas, with pianist Christopher Park (Aug. 16). And violinist Miriam Fried plays the six Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin, with the pieces split between two concerts in one day (Aug. 17). Pianist Jonathan Biss begins what will be a three-year cycle of the complete Beethoven sonatas (Aug. 18, 20, 22).

A couple of family-friendly movie events take place just as summer wanes and the kids are starting back to school. The Chicago Philharmonic, conducted by Emil de Cou, performs Harold Arlen and Herbert Stothart’s beloved score to accompany “The Wizard of Oz” (Sept. 10). “Bugs Bunny at the Symphony II” (Sept. 11) finds the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra backing the Looney Toons gang in classics such as “What’s Opera Doc” and “The Rabbit of Seville.”

For detailed information, visit the Ravinia Festival website.

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