Death Marches and Show Tunes
To give credit where it is due, an irate yet erudite colleague who gave me an earful on the way home from the concert on Sunday suggested the title for this post. The first three concerts featured a turgid, steaming slab of Mahler 6, served up between two pretty flimsy slices of Americana. There has been a fair amount of grousing in recent years that the programming at Ravinia has become all about either concentration camps and (perhaps motivated by some fairness doctrine) heavy German fare on the one hand, or show tunes on the other – as if there was nothing worth hearing in between. The programming for week 1 did nothing to dispel that.
Since much of the country suffered the same fate last week, I risk little in the way of betraying the identity of the orchestra I work for by reporting that the weather was beastly hot and humid – over 100 degrees for three days in a row. A tiny crowd braved the heat to watch our 5 PM July 4th show – the first one I can remember doing in about 20 years. The lawn was as devoid of human presence as it had been back in 1776, save for any native Americans who might have wandered by and wondered what the pale-faced idiots were doing out in the midday sun. An onstage thermometer read 95 at the start of the show.
To celebrate America's birthday, Conductor Steven Reineke assembled a frothy mixture of patriotic favorites and (you guessed it) show tunes, inoffensive at least for those willing to concede we have gone from being a nation of Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, to one of Williams and Disney. Ashley Brown, known for her portrayal of that most American of heroines, Mary Poppins, sang beautifully and bravely in the fierce heat, particularly the selections from Brigadoon. As I did not read the program notes, I can't say if there was some thematic thread here; the Scots have allegedly been pushing for some form of independence recently.
Jap van Zweden conducted a respectable Mahler 6 on Saturday evening when the temperature was still brutal and the audience only marginally larger than for the Independence Day show. Nothing says summer like 90 minutes of angst in 90 degree heat. The hammer blows in the Finale are always the focus of attention when we play Mahler 6, and dare I say they have become a little bit overexposed. As if making a point to be at odds with the way our orchestra operates downtown, the Ravinia camera crew completely ignored them.
The week closed with another 5 PM show on Sunday. 5 PM still strikes me as an odd time for a concert – when is one supposed to have supper? Marvin Hamlisch presented a laudable first half in conditions that could almost be described as pleasant since the heat wave had broken the night before. He presented a few short selections, peppered with witty banter that showcased impeccable comedic timing, at one point deftly turning the dead microphone he was handed into a running gag.
For the second half, he took a backseat to Idina Menzel, who like most of the stars of stage and screen that perform with us was completely unknown to me. She seems to have a rabid following of gay men and adolescent girls. Ms Menzel reportedly was under the weather and did not attend the rehearsal. The diva too sick to sing is something of a cliché, but she really did seem to be in some kind of distress, with a cup of herbal tea and various lozenges at the ready during the performance. I haven't seen that much onstage consumption since Pavarotti's now infamous Otello with us a number of years back.
Words and music have a strange relationship. If not used carefully, words have a unique power to crush music – sort of like the surgeon's scalpel, which can either heal or maim. Ms Menzel obviously had a lot to say to her fans, but the incessant ramblings of her monologues between each selection had the effect of sucking the life out of the performance. The true professional, Hamlisch stepped in with some well-timed one-liners, appreciated as much for their wit as for their brevity, but even he seemed to wilt under the verbal barrage. When all was said an done, a concert with about 60 minutes of music dragged on for 2 hours and 40 minutes, the only bright side of which was the two overtime payments due each and every player.
The confluence of professionalism and overtime makes for the perfect segue into week 2 at Ravinia – the return of Christoph Eschenbach.