Itzhak Perlman and the CSO at Ravinia review- An All- Tchaikovsky Spectacular

On August 21, 2016, Itzhak Perlman, the world’s greatest living violinist and maestro extraordinaire, led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) in an all-Tchaikovsky program at The Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, Illinois. The first two pieces  performed are strong, resonant, stunningly well-crafted and of course, colorfully orchestrated, as one would expect from the Russian master, but the finale was instantly recognizable and thrilling, shot through with live cannon on the spacious lawn outside the Pavilion.

Itzhak Perlman; photo courtesy of The Ravinia Festival

The “Symphony No. 5 in E Minor”, (Opus 64), 1888, described by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky as “a complete resignation before fate”, is a cyclical symphony, with a recurring main theme heard in all four movements  as a unifying technique. This motto theme, known as the “Fate” theme, has a deep, sonorous ”funereal” character which gradually transforms over the four movements into a triumphant march, dominating the end of the 50-minute piece.

Crowds on the lawn at Ravinia; photo courtesy of Barbara Keer

After the intermission, with the great and internationally renowned cellist Lynn Harrell in pride of place on the stage, the audience was treated to “Variations on a Rococo Theme”, (Opus 33), 1877, composed for and with the aid of cellist Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, whose version with emendations is the one most often played. The piece is composed for cello and reduced orchestra, consisting of a theme with 7 variations, approximately 20 minutes long. The sections proceed seemingly without a break and the whole is notoriously difficult to play. At times, it seemed as if Harrell played alone without accompaniment, so completely did he dominate and transcend in this Mozart-inspired piece.

Itzhak Perlman; photo courtesy of Johnny Knight

Finally, “The 1812 Overture”, 1880, was composed to commemorate Russia’s defense of the invading armies of Napolean- NOT the U.S. War of 1812, as many people suppose. It is one of Tchaikovsky’s most well-known and popular works, along with his famous ballets, “The Nutcracker”, “Swan Lake”, and “Sleeping Beauty”. Frequently heard as an introduction or accompaniment to fireworks, the piece begins with a Russian melody, “O Lord, Save Thy People”, and moves through “a mixture of pastoral and martial themes portraying the increasing distress of the Russian people at the hands of the invading French”. Some music analysts have interpreted this festival overture as an almost literal account of the campaign, containing as it does both the anthem from “God Save the Tsar” and “La Marsseillaise”, the French National Anthem.

Inside Ravinia Park; photo courtesy of Barbara Keer

However, the stirring and triumphant masterpiece “is best known for its climactic volley of cannon fire, ringing chimes and brass fanfare finale”. The audience at The Ravinia Festival was roused to cheers of “hooray” and “Itzhak! Itzhak” as the guns boomed. As the smoke ascended and wafted through the Pavilion, the rapt face of the once musical  prodigy and long-time dedicated master could be seen on the large screens flanking the stage, not imperturbable but incredibly moved, calling forth victory with his deft hands from the incomparable CSO.

Itzhak Perlman; photo courtesy of Todd Rosenberg

At Ravinia

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