As part of its annual residency at Ravinia – the oldest outdoor music festival in the United States – the Chicago Symphony Orchestra invited the distinguished maestro David Zinman to lead the orchestra on two consecutive evenings. I attended the second performance, which featured a pair of classical hits: Prokofiev's Violin Concerto no. 2, with soloist Gil Shaham, and Brahms' Fourth Symphony.

David Zinman at Ravinia Festival © Patrick Gipson | Ravinia
David Zinman at Ravinia Festival
© Patrick Gipson | Ravinia

For a music lover – and there were many hundreds on a hot summer evening on the Ravinia lawn – there is always the pleasure of recognizing something well known. But, in preparing to listen to old musical "friends", one can't help wondering: are these going to be well grounded, middle of the road performances or will they really take off?

The answer was somehow mixed. There were beautiful moments such as the firm but delicate entrance of the recently appointed principal flute Stéfan Höskuldsson in Brahms' Allegro energico e passionato or the overall playing of the cello tutti in the same piece. At the same time, however, there were several run-of-the-mill segments that should have been avoided.

One could hear and see that Gil Shaham holds Prokofiev's G minor concerto very dear to his heart. He recently recorded the Russian composer's second essay in the genre as part of a very interesting project meant to highlight the stylistic variety of major violin concertos from the 1930s. Shaham's ability to sustain long phrases and, at the same time, to convey the edginess of this music are really remarkable. The wonderfully warm tone of his violin soared above an orchestral sound that was a little blasé, making the public miss a strong sense of connection between violin and ensemble. 

The orchestra played with more enthusiasm after intermission in Brahms' E minor symphony. Despite the chords sounding occasionally harsh and syncopations not always being sharp enough, Zinman conducted a beautifully shaped and well balanced performance of what is one of the pillars of the repertoire.

As in the evening's first piece, the conductor tried to bring forward the special character of a music both attempting to escape and at the same time acknowledge the heavy shadow of the past. If Prokofiev proved his modernist credentials via his appetite for dissonances, half a century earlier, Brahms fully embraced the Baroque tradition in his tightly-knit Passacaglia. Zinman and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra not only underlined the individual character and the compositional virtuosity characterizing each of the 30 variations but also the melancholic resignation predominant here, at the end of Brahms' symphonic journey. 

These were not sparkling performances to be cherished for a lifetime, but they were solid and decent interpretations allowing the listeners' imagination to soar.