For some reason, reviewers will barely touch Ravinia concerts these days. Last Friday night's Mozart/Mahler concert got no play in the Tribune and only a brief mention in the Sun-Times at the end of an article about other concerts. After covering the start of James Conlon's Mahler cycle with flair, Jon von Rhein at the Trib appears to have lost interest.
Had he been at Ravinia Friday night, he might have found his lack of enthusiasm warranted. The program opened with a Mozart violin concerto, and the Sun-Times noticed that it didn't ever really catch fire:
The small orchestra's tentative opening of the first movement, allegro aperto (cheerful and open), dragged along instead of celebrating some of Mozart's happiest moments. Veteran Ravinia performer Pinchas Zukerman drew out an attractive but uninspiring sound as soloist. A few unwelcome notes in the work's cadenzas -- as written by Daniel Barenboim -- even made Zukerman inspect his instrument with puzzlement.This was the first time I've ever seen a Ravinia pavilion crowd not stand to applaud a soloist. Lang Lang, Itzhak Perlman, James Galway--all got standing ovations and calls for an encore. But the crowd this time around remained resolutely seated, refusing even to make the typical rush for the aisles to reach the bathroom before the intermission crowd lest it be misinterpreted as approval. Not a good showing.
After intermission, though, things seemed to be back on track. Mahler's Fifth Symphony opened with power and beauty, and through four movements things seemed to be humming along nicely. The trains even seemed to come by at just the right moments, and Conlon smartly waited them out before beginning each new movement. But then--perhaps to make up all the time lost to the trains?--he began whipping the baton around like a fishing pole with a violent pike on the other end of the line, dancing on the podium like a man possessed. On his blog, linked above, CSO bassist Michael Hovnanian says the orchestra was willfully refusing to play along with Conlon's chosen tempo:
It is my suspicion that there is a little bit of willful musical misbehavior coming from the orchestra and Conlon, trying to be the nice guy, is letting things get a little too loose. However, when a conductor needs to stop and explain what he is trying to do with his baton it is usually a bad sign.The orchestra may have been misbehaving, but the results would have been bad whether it had obeyed or not. The playing of the orchestra was certainly off in the final movement--different sections were a bit ahead or behind--but the bigger demerit should go to Conlon, who was racing through the symphony's moment of triumph as if he had an urgent need to defecate. The result, not surprisingly, was a stream of shit. Multiple crescendos that most conductors allow to breathe suffocated one another, and instead of a well-defined feeling of exultation, audience members were left feeling harried and confused. A perfectly good performance was soiled. Still, half the crowd stood and cheered the orchestra. (The other half stood, too, but crowded the aisles faster than I've ever seen before, as if Conlon should have gone faster and gotten them to bed by 10.)
Conlon has anywhere from four to six opportunities to redeem himself between now and 2011, depending on whether he includes Das Lied von der Erde--a symphony in subtitle, but unnumbered to forestall Mahler's death from the Curse of the Ninth--and the unfinished 10th Symphony in his cycle. Up next is the Sixth on August 1. Here's hoping he uses the restroom before he takes the podium.