Though shortening daylight puts the end of summer clearly within sight, it also signals that anticipation for the next Ravinia season is beginning to grow ever larger. As the festival marks the 80th anniversary of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s annual residency—the centerpiece of each season—in 2016 Ravinia also celebrates the 45th anniversary of the debut of the conductor who would become the residency’s steward for 20 years: James Levine. In addition to the long-awaited return of this longtime, former music director, Ravinia also welcomes six new faces to the podium, four of whom will simultaneously be making their CSO debuts, as well as a range of guest soloists, from Nicola Benedetti and Alisa Weilerstein to Itzhak Perlman and Lynn Harrell.
“We’re very excited to present the 2016 lineup of esteemed favorites and new experiences, in terms of both repertoire and artists,” says Ravinia President and CEO Welz Kauffman, who programs the festival. “One of the greatest strengths of Ravinia is its ability offer something for everyone, and we have high expectations that next summer’s programs will satisfy the connoisseur as well as the first-time listener. Building the audience for symphonic music— especially enticing younger listeners—is job number one for Ravinia.” To that end, the festival is continuing to make most seats in the Pavilion for all CSO concerts available for just $25 each, and lawn tickets for most of those nights remain just $10, or as little as $7 with the 10-punch lawn pass. Of course, children and students through college still receive free admission to all classical concerts, including the CSO’s residency.
The CSO’s 17-concert 2016 residency begins on July 12 and runs through August 21. That first concert features the American premiere of jazz legend Wynton Marsalis’s first violin concerto, co-commissioned by Ravinia for Nicola Benedetti. The performance will mark the first return of the violinist, who the Sydney Morning Herald says “plays with a natural instinct for shape and contour … drawing the listener compellingly into the musical narrative.” She first appeared at the festival in 2012 with her piano trio and as a soloist with the CSO under Christoph Eschenbach. The premiere will be led by Cristian Măcelaru, winner of the 2014 Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award and conductor-in-residence at the Philadelphia Orchestra, who the Chicago Sun-Times called “the most insightful and serious young conductor out there today.”
Following that Ravinia-debut appearance, Măcelaru will retake the podium on July 13 for the Midwest premiere of Holst’s celestial suite The Planets as paired with a film prepared by NASA that reveals the wonder of our solar system through startling and vivid images collected over its many space explorations, shown on the large screens in the Pavilion and on the lawn. Such new horizons could scarcely have been conceived by Richard Strauss when he wrote Also sprach Zarathustra—now ingrained in pop culture as the theme to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey—nor had New Horizons yet mapped Pluto when John Adams wrote Short Ride in a Fast Machine, but both works will set the pace for the stellar evening of film and music with the CSO.
After a nearly decade-long absence from the festival, Lyric Opera of Chicago Music Director Sir Andrew Davis returns to Ravinia on July 16 to again conduct from Beethoven’s sublime oeuvre, treating his audience to the inimitable Fifth Symphony. The native Englishman will also lead the CSO in a pair of late-Romantic works by his countrymen, Vaughn Williams’s harmonious Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and Elgar’s Cello Concerto with Alisa Weilerstein as the soloist. Few works have had such singular champions as Elgar’s concerto did in the late cellist Jacqueline du Pré and conductor Daniel Barenboim, who together made the benchmark recording 50 years ago. That Barenboim recently recorded the piece with Weilerstein bespeaks the talent of the young American cellist, who gave a solo recital at Ravinia in July. “[Her] interpretation is one of poise, heft, and ardor,” the New York Times wrote of Weilerstein’s recording, “persuading with its lyrical urgency and regal command.”
On July 20 the CSO will take direction from Vasily Petrenko, who the Chicago Tribune said “inspired the orchestra to go well beyond its normal megawatt virtuosity,” in a recent performance downtown, “scaling each climax so it registered even more intensely than the one before.” He makes his Ravinia debut with “sophisticated and suave” (New York Times) pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet on a program that features Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto. The work carries many characteristics of a tone poem, an orchestral genre Liszt pioneered that was later continued by Richard Strauss, whose own tone poem Don Juan also features on the program, along with Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony.
Ravinia’s longtime music director James Levine will celebrate the 45th anniversary of his Ravinia debut by returning to the festival for the first time since concluding his directorship in 1993. “My only regret is that I am leaving,” he said at the time. “The thought of not being with the [CSO] regularly feels terrible to me.” Levine ascended to the post of music director two years after conducting Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony for the festival’s gala concert on June 24, 1971, as a last-minute substitute, and on July 23, 2016, he will lead that same work with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus for the 50th annual Gala Benefit Evening. The gala is Ravinia’s only concert fundraiser supporting the not-for-profit festival and its REACH*TEACH*PLAY education programs, and is organized by its Women’s Board.
One of REACH*TEACH*PLAY’s many initiatives is One Score, One Chicago, which each year, like the namesake book program, puts a citywide spotlight on a single piece of music. The selection for 2016 is Stravinsky’s ballet score The Firebird. On July 26 Ravinia will present the work as Chicago has never seen it before, in a production created by Janni Younge of Handspring Puppet Company, widely praised for its London and Broadway spectacular War Horse. Ben Gernon makes his CSO and Ravinia debuts conducting the program, which also includes Debussy’s La mer and Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes.
The large Pavilion and lawn screens will return on July 29 and 30 for what promises to be one of the biggest movie events of the summer, even before Hollywood releases its annual slate of blockbusters: the Midwest premiere of James Cameron’s Titanic with live orchestra. The international sensation tied Ben-Hur for the most Academy Awards won by a single film (11), including for Best Song (“My Heart Will Go On”) and Best Score for composer James Horner, who died tragically earlier this summer. Titanic remains the best-selling orchestral soundtrack of all time. Like with Ravinia’s recent presentations of The Lord of the Rings, West Side Story, Gladiator, and Star Trek, the music is digitally removed from the film so the CSO, conducted by Ludwig Wicki, can perform the score live while the complete film is shown. A chorus and soprano soloist, who’ll sing the Irish-tinged vocalizations throughout the film (as well as the celebrated theme song made famous by Celine Dion), will join the orchestra onstage.
One of the world’s hottest young pianists, Daniil Trifonov, who’s racked up nearly as many major awards (including first prize in both the Tchaikovsky and the Rubinstein Piano Competitions in 2011) as birthdays, will perform Schumann’s Piano Concerto with the CSO on August 2. Trifonov was introduced to Chicago audiences at Ravinia as part of its $10 BGH Classics series, and last spring he earned rave reviews for his performances of Rachmaninoff’s First Piano Concerto with the orchestra at Symphony Center. The Financial Times says, “This pianist has a lightness of touch that has to be heard to be believed. But whether at his most delicate or most thunderous, what stands out above all else is his musical sincerity.” Gustavo Gimeno, newly named music director of the Luxembourg Philharmonic, makes his CSO and Ravinia debuts conducting the program, which also includes Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony.
The vivacity of music found in early- 20th-century America penetrates pianist and conductor Jeffrey Kahane’s August 3 program with the CSO. After combining those two roles into one for a performance of Gershwin’s swirling showpiece Rhapsody in Blue, he will take to the podium and strike up the band for two sets of “symphonic dances.” Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances may not be overtly jazz-inflected, but the inclusion of a prominent saxophone part surely hinted at the influence of living out his final years in the United States; Bernstein’s, however, have no such illusion. After the wild success of his musical West Side Story, the composer extracted several of its most popular songs, dances, and orchestral sections into a suite that traces through the kaleidoscope of moods and emotions evoked by the modern-day adaptation of Romeo and Juliet.
Named Conductor of the Year in 2013 by the Royal Philharmonic Society and currently principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Kirill Karabits makes his dual Ravinia and CSO debut on August 5. Hailed as “a most astute conductor of Beethoven” (The Guardian), he will bring that expertise to the podium for the composer’s Fourth Piano Concerto, featuring soloist Paul Lewis, whose complete cycle of Beethoven’s piano sonatas was called “one of the most highly prized recording marathons of recent years … an unmissable benchmark” (Gramophone). The program will also feature Prokofiev’s balletic and highspirited Fifth Symphony. Karabits has earned similar acclaim for his extensive recordings of Prokofiev’s symphonies, “illuminating the scores with sensitivity, panache, and … ear-catching spark” (The Telegraph).
Conductor David Zinman, who will be celebrating his 80th birthday in 2016, returns to Ravinia for the first time in over two decades for back-to-back programs featuring symphonies by Brahms. On August 9 he pairs the composer’s second symphony with that of Bernstein, also known as “The Age of Anxiety.” The latter work doubles as a dazzling piano concerto and will feature Misha Dichter in his first appearance with the CSO at Ravinia since 2007. The following night Zinman will lead the orchestra through the vast sonic architecture of Brahms’s First Symphony as well as Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto, a work that resonates with the variety of cultures the composer encountered in his career as a peripatetic performer. Violinist Gil Shaham returns to the festival with his “go-for-broke passion … silvery tone, and meticulously molded phrasing” (Washington Post) as the featured soloist.
On August 12 superstars violinist Joshua Bell and trumpeter Chris Botti join forces with the CSO for a potpourri of classical, jazz, and symphonic pops led by George Hanson, a Bernstein protégé, in his Ravinia debut. Both Hanson and Botti make their CSO debuts on the program.
Beethoven is the sole focus of Bramwell Tovey’s August 20 return to Ravinia. The principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl, described by Musical America as “one of the most versatile and charismatic musicians in the world,” will be joined by the legendary Itzhak Perlman for the composer’s impassioned Violin Concerto, and he will also lead the CSO in a performance of Beethoven’s trailblazing and thoroughly romantic Seventh Symphony.
The following night, to put the final punctuation on the 2016 CSO residency, Perlman will himself ascend the podium to conduct Ravinia’s annual “Tchaikovsky Spectacular,” which celebrates the music of the arch-Romantic composer and concludes with the festival’s signature presentation of the “1812” Overture, complete with live cannon fire. In addition to those pyrotechnics, cellist Lynn Harrell, returning to Ravinia for the first time since 2007, will showcase the razor’s edge of his instrument’s capabilities with Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme. Perlman also leads the orchestra in the composer’s songful Fifth Symphony, rounding out the program with the work’s transformation of darkness into triumph.