High culture in the Windy City

Each summer, Ravinia Park, near Chicago, is the setting for a prestigious music festival.
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The Independent Culture
THE TRAIN from Glencoe to downtown Chicago blows a haunting minor chord that film buffs will instantly recognise. Glencoe itself is the scene of many an Al Capone movie; a rickety old wooden mail-cart still rests aside the platform. But in nearby Ravinia, gangland romance gives way to high culture.

Ravinia Park is framed by the Union Pacific North railway track and a spacious, upper-middle-class housing estate. Originally an amusement site designed to stimulate business for the railroad, the Park soon switched to music (opera, initially), hosting a heady roster of musical immortals, not least Gershwin, Kirsten Flagstad, Jascha Heifetz and Duke Ellington. Nowadays, with a rebuilt outdoors pavilion (the original construction burned to the ground in 1949) and a renovated Martin Theatre (the lone architectural survivor from the original Park), the annual Ravinia Festival crams some 130 carefully planned concerts into the hub of the summer season - that's from the middle of June to the middle of September.

Fresh in from London last Wednesday, I heard a sleek brand of "soft jazz" with special guest Diana Reeves. You would have thought that bucketing rain would have cleared the lawn of listeners; but no, a smattering of diehards kept to their posts under umbrellas of makeshift tents. Others filled the Pavilion virtually to its capacity of 3,300. Ravinia's outdoor acts have the potential to accommodate upwards of 18,000 on-site listeners.

Ravinia's executive director is Zarin Mehta, brother of conductor Zubin, one-time manager of the Montreal symphony and a canny ex-accountant who knows the rules and how to keep them. "You need a society that is susceptible to fundraising," says Mehta, "which is something that I've told all my European colleagues. You can't suddenly create a culture in which money is raised. Here, people have known for decades that if you are going to create culture, education, medical research or medical care, you've got to do it yourself. The community has to do it. You could say, in a sense, that each of the major American cities is a city state in the old style. You don't have a local duke, count or prince; but you do have the princes of industry, their families and the fortunes that are behind them."

Ravinia's financial lifeblood consists of 60% ticket sales and 40% sponsorship. And there's the educational programme, now focused at the 10-year-old Steans Institute, scene of many an absorbing public masterclass. I sat in while pianist, teacher and broadcaster David Owen Norris - a regular contributor to our own Radio 3 - paired six talented young singers to six great songs and added a fluent potted history of notation into the bargain. Norris's jargon-free exegesis worked wonders, although one onlooker laughed mockingly at the idea that Schubert's later life had been tragic and tormented. Clearly, some Ravinians prefer to think of Schubert as trouble-free.

Ravinia's music director is the German-born conductor and pianist Christoph Eschenbach, for my money one of the top half-dozen classical all-rounders working the current circuit. Eschenbach is the least authoritarian of maestros, and his enthusiasm for spreading the gospel of great music is an inspiration to all his colleagues. "The idea that `classical music' is dead is a sort of virus that is infecting the whole world," exclaims Eschenbach. "But, actually, I think that the truth is that it is more like a bacillus, one that is not very strong and barely scratches the surface. Deep down, things are fairly healthy. Audiences are getting younger, and there is a phenomenal amount of musical talent out there."

The principal problem with the present situation is, according to Eschenbach, the "kitsch" that is so often passed off as classical music. "It is a crime," he says, with palpable indignation, "it's disastrous, so much musical mud that corrupts those audiences who are not knowledgeable enough to discard it. But the public is not stupid. Play something subtle, present it in an imaginative way, and they invariably respond."

Still, the public demands its role models, and tends to be influenced by them. "If Michael Jordan were to say, `I go to the symphony concert three times a week'," laughs Mehta, "people would suddenly change their minds about symphony concerts. They certainly wouldn't say that Michael Jordan is full of nonsense!" Therein lies the difference between an idealist and a realist.

However, visitors to Ravinia, many of whom live locally, need no convincing. Indeed, they are truly privileged. Eschenbach's malleable Eroica Symphony marked the 20th anniversary of his Ravinia debut, and a song recital with baritone Thomas Allen chronicled some of the finest musical teamwork heard anywhere this season. The next day, Eschenbach partnered Larry Combs, the Chicago Symphony's lead clarinettist, in Brahms and Schumann. "When you have a music director who plays chamber repertoire, you feel that there's a genuine musician out there who's really listening to you," says Combs. "So often, the conductor waves his arms around and isn't really attending to what's going on. We in the orchestra have a lot more respect for someone who has a genuine two-way connection with us."

Ravinia's pavilion is not exactly free of distractions. Passing trains, the whims of the weather and the whirring of cicadas occasionally intrude, and it's as well to keep some insect-repellent close to hand. The humidity forms a veil of moisture, and the bugs swarm in droves when it starts to lift. But the atmosphere is electric.

One of the highlights of the past week was the collaboration of Eschenbach, the Chicago Symphony and soprano Renee Fleming in Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs and Samuel Barber's Knoxville, Summer of 1915. The concert was being recorded for autumn transmission by Channel 11's WTTW (Window to the World Communications, Inc). "There's something especially relaxed about the Ravinia summer festival," Renee Fleming told me, just after joining Eschenbach and Combs for a divine account of Schubert's The Shepherd on the Rock. "You notice the audience smiling more readily. There's an openness to their response, and an appreciation of the joy that is at the heart of so much good music."

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