Updated: August 14, 2013 6:10AM
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra opened its 2013 Ravinia season with the first of two all-Beethoven programs that looked strong on paper and, at least in round one, were even more so in performance.
A nearly full pavilion and a large lawn crowd turned out Thursday night for guest conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi, music director of the great Cleveland Orchestra in the era when Georg Solti led the CSO, and much-admired pianist Emanuel Ax. He began a survey of four central Beethoven works written in just several years as the composer broke from his classical heritage and became a truly individual, even eternal, artist.
The weather was beautiful. The park in terrific shape. The new train and parking lot main passageway functioning perfectly in its second season. The sound system seemed well-balanced outside and in; the video screens relatively unobtrusive and useful for observing the soloist. So the music was the focus, and conductor, pianist and orchestra delivered seriously felt and played performances far from summer festival-type exercises.
At 64, Ax remains brilliant but humble, technically expert but never a show-off, insightful but not overly analytical. His palpable joy in playing is still infectious. But that does not mean that his pianism has anything old or repetitive. For the 1800 Third Concerto in C Minor, Op. 37, Ax conveyed a sense of “I’ve played this piece for nearly 50 years, and I want to share what I’ve really come to think about it.”
Tempo, phrasing, volume and pedal choices were all fully alive and highlighted Beethoven’s harmonic and rhythmic inventions without using a heavy underliner. The playing of the slow movement was at times so beautiful and delicate that its intricacies seemed to disappear into the larger whole. Of course they had not disappeared at all: Their internalization by Ax was the key to his whole interpretation and made one anticipate Friday night’s Fifth Concerto, “Emperor,” even more.
Von Dohnanyi, who turns 84 in September, strikes many as the epitome of a no-nonsense conductor. He went beyond that here in emphasizing the chamber feel of this music, keeping section work quiet but focused, and drawing an audience response to match it. At times in the concerto, it was not clear if he, Ax, and the players were fully sharing a sense of style, but this was the first work on a post-vacation, tight-rehearsal season launcher. Ax was ever in control, and the revolutionary 1803 Third Symphony, the E-Flat Major “Eroica,” Op. 55, after intermission, showed the CSO in peak condition and fully allied with the podium.
Again the centerpieces were interplay, balance and pacing with the second movement Funeral March like an aural novella. A perfectly pitched Scherzo and warmth and control in the large outer movements brought the piece to a fine and involving level. Horn trios were a gift after a long period of section uncertainty, now past. The delicacy that will be required for the Fourth Symphony on Friday was clearly in place.
Wednesday night saw history made in Ravinia’s indoor Martin Theatre, one of the great chamber halls anywhere, as the Juilliard String Quartet, long connected with the festival and Chicago in general, marked the farewell concert of its violist of 44 years, Samuel Rhodes. Beethoven also opened this full-house performance, an echt Juilliard full-bodied playing of his last quartet (of 16), the 1826 Op. 135 in F.
Two novelties followed, Rhodes’s own Viola Quintet, composed at 25 in 1968 for his master’s thesis at Princeton, an arresting Modernist piece with a number of surprises, and Mozart’s Fifth String Quintet in D, K. 593, also a two-viola work. Roger Tapping, who had a strong career with the Takacs Quartet before turning to teaching and solo work, joined Rhodes in these pieces, quite literally succeeding him. Joseph Lin, finishing his second season as first violin of this storied group, again showed the chops that can carry it forward.
The scene of Rhodes embracing his “junior” colleague Joel Krosnick, who joined the Juilliard as cellist in 1974 and is now its longest-tenured member, were truly touching.
Andrew Patner is critic at large for WFMT-FM (98.7).