When the Chicago Symphony Orchestra takes up residency each summer at the Ravinia Festival, it’s a chance to not only hear the celebrated ensemble in a more informal, outdoor setting but also to experience different maestros on the podium. Last year, four conductors made their CSO debuts during the festival, and this summer, three more will step before the ensemble for the first time: Lionel Bringuier, Edward Gardner and Dima Slobodeniouk. Two others have led the CSO previously but have not appeared at Ravinia: Andrey Boreyko and Kent Nagano.
The three conductors making their CSO and Ravinia debuts are at different stages of their career. Perhaps the best known is Gardner, 42, who served as music director of the English National Opera from 2007 through 2015 and became chief conductor of the Bergen (Norway) Philharmonic in 2015. He has made more than 20 recordings, including a well-received all-Elgar album released in April with the BBC Symphony.
Perhaps less familiar is Slobodeniouk, 42, who will be making what he believes his just his fifth visit to the United States for his Ravinia date, a concert he hopes leads to further appearances in this country. “I haven’t really been pushing hard to start to conduct in the U.S., but now that it’s happening, I’m really excited about it,” he said. “I have a family, a small boy, so I’m trying not to be too much away from home, but if it’s organizable and makes sense, things like coming to Ravinia are a fantastic experience.”
Debuts allow conductors to expand their talents before new audiences, and they give orchestras opportunities to size up the aspiring maestros and see how they mesh with the ensembles’ style and temperament. Some CSO conductors at Ravinia are later invited to appear with the orchestra on its subscription series at Orchestra Hall.
“It’s the only way for you to advance in your career, because if you don’t do debuts, it means you are conducting the same orchestras all the time,” Slobodeniouk said. “And even to conduct those orchestras, you had to still had to make a debut with those orchestras at some point. Debuts are, on one hand, very special because you are facing the new orchestra for the first time, and you need to catch their attention and their respect and very quickly understand what needs to be done.”
For a young conductor, said Bringuier, 30, all of his or her appearances are inevitably debuts. But as a career progresses, conductors build relationships with certain orchestras and return on a regular basis. He noted, for example, that he has worked with the Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra, BBC Symphony and Swedish Radio Symphony for a decade or so. “But then there are still other orchestras where there will be debuts now, and maybe some orchestras in 10 years where there will be debuts,” he said. “I hope so.”
Although it’s easy to imagine a debut with an orchestra, especially a world-class ensemble on the level of the Chicago Symphony, being nerve-wracking, Bringuier has not found such experiences to be the case. “Sometimes people say that it is more difficult, but for me, it’s always about the music,” he said. “If you know the orchestra or you don’t know the orchestra, it doesn’t change much.”
He has conducted Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, one of the two works on his July 11 Ravinia program, so often in his career that he feels confident. Accordingly, it will be a joy and not stressful to perform the work with the CSO. “It’s about sharing the music, so I’ve never really been nervous,” he said.
Here are more details about the three conductors making their CSO debuts at Ravinia this summer:
July 11, Lionel Bringuier, with pianist Yuja Wang: Born in Nice, France, he studied conducting at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique in Paris and made his professional debut at age 14 leading a live concert on French national television. In 2007, he was named assistant conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and later became the orchestra’s first-ever resident conductor, a post he relinquished in 2012-13.
After four years as chief conductor and music director of the Tonhalle Orchestra Zürich, he will be stepping down after the 2017-18 season. Under his leadership, the orchestra has undertaken several international tours, including one to South America, and recorded the complete orchestral works of Maurice Ravel. It began a program of creative chairs, a position first filled by composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, and put an emphasis on new music. “So it has been a wonderful, wonderful time there,” Bringuier said.
July 16, Dima Slobodeniouk, with pianist Simon Trpčeski: Born in Russia, Slobedeniouk moved with his family to Finland in 1992 and went on to study violin and conducting at that country’s celebrated Sibelius Academy. In 2016, he became principal conductor of the Lahti (Finland) Symphony Orchestra (an ensemble that gained considerable acclaim under the tenure of Osmo Vänskä from 1988 to 2008) and artistic director of the Sibelius Festival.
He will lead Ravinia’s “Tchaikovsky Spectacular,” an annual program that always includes the composer’s 1812 Overture, which has become a patriotic favorite in the United States. “Actually, by coincidence,” he said, “the first time I came to the States, I was at the Cincinnati Symphony, and that was also an all-Tchaikovsky program. I come from Russia, and this [Tchaikovsky] is part of my heritage, so I don’t mind at all.”
July 18, Edward Gardner, with pianist Yefim Bronfman: Although he has not performed with the CSO previously, Gardner is no stranger to the Windy City. The British conductor made his debut with Lyric Opera of Chicago in February 2016, leading a revival of Richard Strauss’ most popular stage work, Der Rosenkavalier.
“This accomplished conductor scored an impressive company debut, drawing a rich, flowing, idiomatic and finely balanced reading from Lyric’s ever-dependable orchestra, ” wrote music critic John von Rhein in the Chicago Tribune. “His musicians luxuriated in the sumptuous scoring without overpowering the singers in this long and taxing opera.”
Other Ravinia podium debuts:
Andrey Boreyko, music director of the National Orchestra of Belgium, will make his Ravinia bow on July 12, leading a program that includes violin star Joshua Bell in Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy.
Kent Nagano, an internationally renowned conductor, whose titles include music director of the Montréal Symphony Orchestra (through 2019-20) and general music director of the Hamburg State Opera and Philharmonic, appears at Ravinia for the first time on July 25. A longtime friend and collaborator of John Adams, he will help the festival celebrate the composer’s 70th birthday with Ravinia’s first performance of Harmonielehre (The Book of Harmony) (1985).
After having set the work aside for 15 years, Nagano returned to it about five years ago when he led performances of it with the Montréal Symphony. “Since that point,” he said, “it’s re-entered my repertoire, and I’m really looking forward to bringing to Ravinia.”