Cannons, Fried Bring Ravinia to a Crescendo
Annual Tchaikovsky Spectacular spurs standing ovation from crowd at Highland Park venue.
Cannons punctuating Peter Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture made the most noise at Sunday’s annual Ravinia Tchaikovsky Spectacular, but violinist Miriam Fried got the loudest cheers when the crowd rose to its feet after her performance of the Russian master’s violin concerto.
The afternoon started with Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, the last piece of music the composer ever wrote nine days before his death in 1893. Fried then delighted the audience with her solos throughout the concerto before the finale of the famous overture.
Playing without the sheet music and most of the time with her eyes closed, Fried began playing the initial haunting tones as they seemed to emanate from her entire body, with her fingers dancing around the four strings making the music.
“I’m in awe of any musician who can provide such good audio sound with just four notes,” said Carol Willis, a Highland Park resident who heard the concert from the lawn. “She is feeling her music. That’s why her eyes were closed so no other senses got in the way.”
Fried has been a Ravinia soloist since 1974 and the director of its Steans Institute each summer since 1994.
“She is a world-class Ravinia fixture,” said Rick Nelson, another Highland Park resident who has been coming to the festival regularly for years.
Others in the audience—the Pavilion was nearly full while the lawn was sprawling to 80 percent capacity—were just glad to hear another world-class musician with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO), always a star by itself.
“She played like a master,” said Harriett Bernbaum of Highland Park. “The concerto was good and exhilarating.”
Willis’s husband, Dr. Paul Willis, who studied violin in his youth and played for the Chicago Park District Orchestra and at Roosevelt High School, took a more studied approach to Fried’s performance.
“I can imagine what it must be like playing up there,” the doctor said. “I know how hard it is to play with the orchestra making music out of four strings and a bow. She is only given four notes.”
When the CSO opened the concert with Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, the audience was treated to a performance fully reflecting the title Tchaikovsky bestowed on its debut, Pathetique, meaning great pathos.
Most symphonies end with a frenzy but this one concludes with a very short, quiet fourth movement. The slow sad finish led by a much quieter Ravinia Festival Music Director James Conlon was brief. Before that Conlon put his entire body into leading the orchestra through the vibrant journey of the first three movements.
“It’s a fitting ending with tragic wisps of melancholy,” said Maurice Fulton, a Highland Park resident who has enjoyed the piece since hearing it at age 10. “You had the crescendos in the third movement. It was fitting.”
Fulton felt that way because he knew the story. According to the program notes, nine days after the work premiered on Oct. 28, 1893, to less than enthusiastic reviews, Tchaikovsky died.
The meaning of the work and its history was not lost on Danny Dann of Highland Park. He saw the symphony as a reflection of the composer’s career.
“It mirrored life. It started with his loves and vibrancy and ended in death,” Dann said. “It is wonderful music in beautiful surroundings played by a wonderful orchestra.
For Rick and Davida Nelson of Highland Park, it was like an extension of their vacation. “We just got back from St. Petersburg. It made us feel like we were still there,” Rick Nelson said of the Russian city where the work was first performed.
The performance ended with one of Tchaikovsky’s best-known works, the 1812 Overture depicting the Russian military victory over Napoleon Bonaparte's forces--complete with cannons triggered by a computer in a roped-off section of Ravinia’s lawn.
Cannons were first fired after several strains of the Marshallese, France’s national anthem. Then overture’s familiar strains became more and more dominant as the cannons ended the piece in a Russian win.
“It was loud; it shook the house,” said Ashley Smolensky of Highland Park who heard the concert from her grandparents’ nearby home.