A Ravinia Experience

Some readers may not know that Ravinia is the summer home of the Chicago Symphony.  It is a park in Highland Park, a northern suburb of Chicago.  Concerts both classical and pop are given there from early June until mid-September, with a residency of the symphony in the middle.  Come to think of it, concerts are now given year round at Ravinia, but it is mostly known for its summer fare.

Long ago have I lost track of how many times I have been to Ravinia, but suffice to say that “a lot” would apply.  And in mentioning some people hereafter, I am not even beginning to do justice to the fine array of talented musicians I have seen at Ravinia over the years.  I must also add that the customarily fine weather in the Chicago area in the summer makes a place like Ravinia possible.  Anyone trying to have a “Ravinia” experience in Texas would suffocate from the heat.

There are three venues at Ravinia in which concerts are given.  The idea is to sit in one of those venues, or sit on the expansive lawn and enjoy a picnic of some sort, either before or while listening to the music.  Some people bring all sorts of cutlery, candles, tables, chairs, wine, and food, and have a feast.  Others consider eating on the lawn for peasants.  Either way, Ravinia hosts thousands of people of all sorts throughout the summer.

One performance venue is a huge pavilion which seats several hundred people.  Just last summer I saw and heard Chris Thile, the Punch Brothers, and “I’m With Her” give an amazing concert of bluegrass music for 2 and 1/2 hours with no intermission.  Several years ago I also heard almost all of the Mahler symphonies in the pavilion and was thrilled.  A couple of summers ago I saw Maestro Krzystof Urbanski conduct the Chicago Symphony and was delighted.  He is the young Polish conductor who leads orchestras all over the world, and who is, among other positions, the conductor of the Indianapolis Symphony.  After seeing Maestro Urbanski at Ravinia, I drove to Indianapolis to watch him conduct the Mahler 5th Symphony, and have since become a donor to that symphonic organization.

Another Ravinia venue is the Martin Theater, the oldest building on the campus.  Sitting on the second row from the stage I witnessed a concert by Bryn Terfel and thought I had died and gone to heaven. I have also heard Kiri Te Kanawa and Nicole Cabell there.  The first times I saw Leif Ove Andsnes and Ingrid Fliter play solo programs was also in the Martin Theater.  I have followed the careers of both since and heard them multiple times.

The newest venue at Ravinia is Bennett Gordon Hall.  It is a pleasant facility with fine acoustics, and practice rooms in addition to the performance space.  Some amazing concerts are given there for the unbelievable price of $10.  I first heard Calmus, an a cappella vocal group from Leipzig, in Bennett Gordon Hall.  I heard Alison Balsom play the trumpet there and two wonderful pianists, one from Great Britain and the other from Russia, whose names I  do not remember.

There is, however, someone whose name I remember all too well, but will not share because I do not want to give him any publicity.

I was in the Martin Theater with a woman who was not musical. There was a pianist playing who clearly held himself in high esteem, giving a program of works from his home country.  The audience thought he was outstanding and cheered him after every piece.  At intermission I told the woman I was with that the guy was just banging on the piano.  And then I said, “Do you see that man across the aisle?  His name is John von Rhein and he will crucify this guy in the morning.  (John von Rhein is the classical music critic of the Chicago Tribune.)  Suffice it to say that the next morning Mr. von Rhein did not disappoint me.  At the end of his tepid review, he said of the performer, “He thinks he is the next Horowitz, but not quite yet.”  A year or so later I ran into John von Rhein at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and reminded him of that review. His response was, “And they keep having him back to Ravinia anyway.”

It matters not to me what people think of my playing because the vast majority cannot tell the difference between good and very good anyway.  It matters a great deal to me, however, what people think of my writing.  Reading what someone has written is a very personal experience.  And the odds are that if a writer is doing his or her very best, then he may be getting through to his readers.  (Faulkner and James Joyce are surely great, but beyond almost everybody all the same.)  The average writer like myself is just hoping to reach his audience in some intelligible fashion.

I could name several fine writers who reach all sorts of people, but the name that comes readily to mind is Wendell Berry.  Wendell’s writing is authentic, often reflecting his Kentucky roots.  I had the profound pleasure of sitting in the living room of Wendell’s home in Kentucky while he talked about his relatives with a lady whose grandmother was a sister to Wendell’s grandmother.  Listening to them banter back and forth was like reading one of his short stories.

I have seen people on the lawn actually reading at Ravinia during a concert.  I can only do one thing at a time.  So I go to Ravinia, listen to the music, then go home, and finish the evening with a good book.  John von Rhein was taking notes while that guy was banging on the piano.  Of course, one hears noise; one listens to music.




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