CSO at Ravinia review: James Conlon makes a poignant return

James Conlon
Chicago Tribune

Conductor James Conlon holds deep ties to the Ravinia Festival, having been music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s residencies there for 11 seasons (ending in 2015), and he seemed moved to return to its podium Thursday night.

Before picking up the baton, he spoke to the audience about his tenure at Ravinia, reflecting on memorable nights conducting “our deluxe orchestra.”

Conlon’s relationship with the CSO and this festival, he implied, shaped Thursday’s program. For Garrick Ohlsson was back to perform a Mozart Piano Concerto, in effect recalling Conlon’s earlier traversal of Mozart’s works for piano and orchestra (with Ohlsson as one of the guest soloists). And the two suites with which Conlon opened this evening, though surprisingly light as counterparts to the Mozart, each cast a spotlight on individuals in the ensemble. Or, as Conlon put it, in these compositions by Igor Stravinsky and Richard Strauss, “virtually everyone is a soloist.”


Conlon conducted this music with a light hand, opening with an unhurried, regal approach to the most famous movement of “Pulcinella,” the Sinfonia (Overture). From there, true to his word, Conlon cleared ample space for CSO musicians to sound forth. Assistant principal oboist Michael Henoch produced characteristically sublime phrase-making in the Serenata (and elsewhere); principal flutist Stefan Ragnar Hoskuldsson crafted long streams of lucid tone in the Gavotta con due variazioni.

All the more in Strauss’ Suite from “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme,” inspired by Moliere’s play. Though Conlon’s decision to feature a second suite of miniatures did not provide a fitting or significant counterbalance to the first, it certainly once again afforded him the chance to turn the spotlight to individual players. Concertmaster Robert Chen unspooled silken legato lines in “Lully’s Minuet,” and principal cellist John Sharp offered a radiant, amber tone in the culminating “The Dinner.”

In all, a selfless contribution from Conlon in tipping his hat to his longtime colleagues.
Read the rest of the review here