Vladimir Feltsman, Piano
August 8, 2016, Martin Theatre, Ravinia, Highland Park, IL
Brahms – Four Ballades, Op. 10
Brahms – Two Rhapsodies, Op. 79
Mussorgsky – Pictures at an Exhibition
Last night, I was fortunate enough to see Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, as well as some selections from Brahms, performed live by brilliant pianist, Vladimir Feltsman. Feltsman was born in Russia in 1952, and he made his piano debut at age 11 with the Moscow Philharmonic. He continued his study at Moscow’s Tchaikovsky State Conservatory in 1969, later studying conducting at the Moscow and Leningrad Conservatories. In 1979, after years of growing increasingly frustrated with the Soviet Union’s communist suppression of artistic freedom, Feltsman applied for an exit visa. The communists responded by banning him from giving public performances and suppressing his recordings. After eight years of this, he was allowed to leave the Soviet Union and move to America, where he soon made his debut performance at Carnegie Hall. He is now an American citizen, and he currently lives in upstate New York with his wife. All this to say, the man is a brilliant musician and a lover and defender of freedom.
Ravinia is probably the finest music venue in the Chicago area, if not the entire country. Ravinia opened in northside Chicago suburb Highland Park in 1904, and it has been the summer residency of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 1936. It even hosted one of George Gershwin’s final public performances of Rhapsody in Blue. It is also the oldest outdoor music festival in the United States. The venue is situated mere blocks from Lake Michigan in a lovely older suburban area. The park has a covered pavilion with seats, as well as a much larger lawn area, complete with old oak, maple, and birch trees, among many others. The site also features the Martin Theatre, which has beautiful prairie style architecture, stained glass windows, and chandeliers, as well as wonderful motifs painted on the ceiling. It is a wonderful example of early 20th century prairie style architecture. The park also includes multiple high class restaurants with excellent cuisine, with a menu that changes for each performance.
This particular performance took place in the air conditioned Martin Theatre, with the music broadcast out to the lawn via speakers. The weather was perfect, with a cool breeze off the lake. It actually would have been a perfect night for the outdoor pavilion, but it was a Monday night with a much smaller crowd. The concert was better suited to the more intimate theatre.
Ravinia itself is an experience. On a normal night, particularly on Friday and Saturday nights, the majority of visitors sit on the lawn. They make quite the production out of it – they bring coolers, chairs, and tables, and they set up wonderful picnics to eat while enjoying the music. Another interesting aspect of Ravinia is the cicadas. Since it is summertime in Chicago, in an old established neighborhood, the cicadas endlessly join in as the added percussion section. Some may be annoyed by this, but I’ve found it to be a unique part of the Ravinia experience, as I’m sure thousands of others have found it to be over the past 100 years. The commuter train line into Chicago also runs past (and stops at) Ravinia, but the conductor doesn’t blow the horn as it goes by. My family and I prefer sitting in the covered pavilion, partly because we live over an hour away (if there’s no traffic), and we would rather not drive all that way for a show to have it spoiled by rain. That, and we would rather have seats and see the performers.
Vladimir Feltsman’s solo piano concert was my first time in the Martin Theatre. While not packed during the performance, there was a good size crowd of people. The vast majority of people were older (retirement age), with a few younger people sprinkled throughout. We sat in the thirteenth row on the right side of the theater, as you are facing the stage. Close, but not too close. The piano was a full size Steinway & Sons. No amplification was needed inside the theater, although it was amplified through speakers to the lawn. I don’t have any pictures to share, as the venue asks that you not take pictures or video during their concerts.
Feltsman himself is a relatively quiet, unassuming man. He walked on stage to applause from the crowd, quickly bowed, sat down, and began playing Brahms’ Four Ballades without saying a word. Seeing as I am not an expert on classical music (although I’m doing my homework – why else would I be going to classical concerts), I wasn’t too familiar with the Brahms pieces he played. Nevertheless, they were excellent, and his performance of them seemed flawless. The audience seemed to agree, giving him a hearty round of applause.
During the intermission, my Dad and I debated over whether or not the organ pipes flanking both sides of the stage were real. We determined that they were probably more for show, since there were only large pipes – no small ones. Interestingly, the piano tuner came out during the intermission to check on things. While Feltsman’s technical playing was excellent, something seemed off about the Steinway piano, particularly on the low end.
After the intermission, Feltsman returned to more applause, bowed again, sat down, and immediately began pounding out the opening notes to Pictures at an Exhibition. Here was the real reason everybody came to this concert. Pictures is one of my favorite classical pieces, along with Rhapsody in Blue and the 1812 Overture (which I will be seeing the CSO perform live with Itzhak Perlman conducting at Ravinia in a few weeks!). Like many prog fans, my first real introduction to Mussorgsky’s masterpiece was through ELP’s live rendition. I love that album, and it gave me a greater appreciation for the connections between classical music and progressive rock. I enjoy listening to Vladimir Ashkenazy’s wonderful rendition on CD, but hearing it played live by one of the great pianists of our age was truly a treat.
Feltsman played with such unbridled and real passion. So many pianists flail their arms, close their eyes, make faces, and drop their head back because they think that is what a concert pianist is supposed to do. From my perspective, when a pianist goes overboard with the emotion, it comes off as completely fake. It never felt fake with Mr. Feltsman. He never overdid it, and it was clear when he was truly one with what he was playing. It is hard to explain, but it was almost a transcendental experience. Hearing him play that beautiful piano with such authority, emotion, and clarity was absolutely heavenly.
I took a history of Russia class during my last semester in college, and that course gave me a much greater appreciation for this music. While giving Feltsman’s performance my complete and undivided attention, the whole piece took on a new meaning for me. During the high and grandiose parts of the performance, such as the opening Promenade, I could sense the majesty, splendor, and power of Tsarist Russia. During the lower, heavier parts of the piece, I could feel the dread and drudgery of the peasant classes. Feltsman brought out the emotion of the music in his playing in a way that only a native Russian who has experienced autocratic persecution can. I wish I could explain it better than that, but I don’t think I can. Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.
When it was all over, he received a well deserved standing ovation. He bowed, left the stage, returned, bowed, and left again. We kept applauding, so he came back out and played a brief encore. If I knew classical music better, I could tell you what it was. It was lighter and more upbeat than Pictures at an Exhibition, and it was a great way to end the show. After he left the stage again, an announcer said he would be signing autographs near the gift shop. Since the crowd was fairly small (for Ravinia’s standards), we decided to go buy a CD and have him sign it. Not many lined up, so we didn’t have to wait long. We didn’t say much to him, other than expressing how much we enjoyed the performance. He was very gracious, and it was truly an honor to meet him.
What a fantastic evening of some of the greatest music ever written. To hear Mussorgsky’s great work played by someone who knows what it means to be persecuted by communism brought added meaning to the music, and it will be an evening that lives long in my memory.