Marin Alsop leads three weeks of back-to-back concerts featuring the CSO in its summer home

Marin Alsop leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia.

©Patrick Gipson/Ravinia Festival

Classical music may have a centuries-old history, but among today’s top conductors, Marin Alsop is exceptionally open to trying new approaches. In both her choice of soloists and the programs she designed for her three weeks of Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts July 12–26, Ravinia’s chief conductor is showcasing fresh faces and interesting ideas.

Friday, July 12

This year the classical music world is celebrating the centennial of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, the composer’s most enduringly popular concert piece. Gershwin was at the piano for the first performance on February 12, 1924, with Paul Whiteman’s acclaimed jazz band in New York City’s Aeolian Hall.

“The linchpin for this program is the 100th anniversary idea,” said Alsop. Johnson’s Charleston, which set off a craze for one of the 1920s’ most iconic social dances, had its debut only a few months earlier, October 29, 1923, in an all-Black musical comedy show on Broadway titled Runnin’ Wild. “It represents a Black composer’s contribution [to American musical life] at that same time, which is very interesting to me,” said Alsop.

Alsop has never worked with pianist Michelle Cann before, but she was featured on a recording by the New York Youth Symphony that won a 2023 Grammy for Best Orchestral Performance. Mike Repper, a former Alsop student and the Youth Symphony’s former director, conducted that album and recommended Cann to Alsop as a Rhapsody in Blue soloist. She will be making both her Ravinia and CSO debuts.

Appalachian Spring, originally written for a 1944 Martha Graham ballet, is quintessential Americana, as is Barber’s introspective piece for soprano and orchestra, Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Set to a text by James Agee, it is a reverie of a young child sitting in the backyard with his family on a hot summer night. The music has special resonance for Alsop. “For me, it’s so evocative of Ravinia,” she said. “It’s all about picnicking on the lawn.”

Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha, a South African soprano in her late 20s, is the soloist. Winner of the Song Prize at the prestigious BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition in 2021, she was Alsop’s soloist in a performance of Knoxville last year with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra at the annual Cincinnati May Festival. In repertoire that includes Verdi and Puccini, critics have described her voice as “silky smooth and hauntingly beautiful.” As one critic put it, “She has show-stealing qualities.”

Working with Rangwanasha in Cincinnati was “just fantastic,” said Alsop. “She’s a fabulous singer I wanted to bring to Ravinia.” Chicago audiences received an introduction to the soprano mere months ago in mid-April when Rangwanasha was a featured soloist in Mendelssohn’s Elijah alongside Steans Institute alum mezzo Ashley Dixon, conducted by former Ravinia Music Director James Conlon.

Soprano Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha Credit: Vera Elma Vacek

Vera Elma Vacek

Saturday, July 13

Rangwanasha isn’t the only South African musician Alsop has invited to Ravinia this summer. Abel Selaocoe is a classically trained cellist whose performances move back and forth between classical chamber and orchestral music and the world-music and beatbox scenes. He has appeared as soloist at London’s immensely popular annual BBC Proms series and formed a trio, Chesaba, which specializes in South African music, including some of his own compositions.

“I’ve conducted in South Africa a few times,” said Alsop. “I’m quite involved with the talent coming from South Africa, so I heard about [Selaocoe]. I think he’s a really interesting artist. I’ve been wanting to invite him for a long time.” Composed in 2022 and approximately 25 minutes long, Selaocoe’s Four Spirits is a cello concerto in four movements. At times he sings an infectious, folk-inflected melody while playing the cello; at other times the orchestra musicians (or, at Ravinia, a few local high-schoolers) sing with him. The audience is welcome to sing or clap along.

“It’s a very unusual piece,” said Alsop. “I was very touched by the kind of music-making I was experiencing in South Africa. There’s thinking outside the box. It’s more interactive; it’s much more experimental, like theater. These two South African soloists really exemplify those characteristics. There’s a sense of improvisation that I like. And a joyous quality that really is very enticing and emotional for me. There’s an innocence about it that I think is great.”

The program opens with composer Iryna Aleksiychuk’s newest work, scheduled to have its world premiere July 5 at the Prague Summer Nights Festival. It is the most recent commission by the Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship in conjunction with the Eric Daniel Helms New Music Program of the Classical Movements organization. The project selects women composers from various countries to write pieces that Taki Alsop’s female conducting fellows can perform at concerts around the world. Go where the wind takes you ... is approximately 15 minutes long and inspired by a poem by Olena Stepanenko (Prylutska), Aleksiychuk’s frequent collaborator.

“We particularly want to support women composers from Ukraine,” said Alsop. “This is a Ukrainian woman composer collaborating with a Ukrainian woman poet. It’s all about resilience and endurance, all of the things they’ve needed. The war had started when she began composing. She had already fled to Spain, and the poet is in the United Kingdom. Really, everyone had to run.”

Beethoven’s symphony, whose four opening notes served as a victory signal (the rhythm of V in Morse code) for the Allies in World War II, seemed a perfect capstone for the program. “The Beethoven Fifth is, in many ways, about resilience and triumph over adversity,” said Alsop. “That’s what Beethoven’s philosophy was, of course.”

Abel Selaocoe Credit: Warner Music / Christina Ebenezer

Saturday, July 20

The CSO is one of the world’s great Mahler orchestras, and Alsop has conducted several of the composer’s works at Ravinia, starting in 2018 with the buoyant Symphony No. 1. The massive Symphony No. 8 followed in 2019, Symphony No. 4 in 2021, and, last year, two Mahler pieces, Blumine (a movement the composer cut from Symphony No. 1) and Symphony No. 5.

“I’m really looking forward to doing Symphony No. 9 with the CSO,” she said. “They’re such a marvelous orchestra. I love doing Mahler with them, and I think we have a good affinity together for the works.

“I’m really looking forward to doing Symphony No. 9 with the CSO,” she said. “They’re such a marvelous orchestra. I love doing Mahler with them, and I think we have a good affinity together for the works.”

“I just recorded this with my orchestra in Vienna [ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra] in the Musikverein. Of course, that’s where Bernstein [Leonard Bernstein, the fabled American conductor and Alsop’s mentor] recorded them all, and Mahler conducted them. It was very exciting.”

Sunday, July 21

Alsop’s remaining CSO programs are highly varied, some of them glittering orchestral showcases.

“This is a very exciting program, colorful—that was really the idea,” said Alsop about the afternoon concert. “And introducing the audience to a new rising star.”

Now in his late 20s, Hayato Sumino is a Japanese pianist and composer whose performance in the semifinals of the 2021 International Chopin Piano Competition became an internet sensation. He didn’t win the competition’s top prize, but online viewers were fascinated by both his playing and his backstory. Starting out as a graduate student in science and technology, interested in AI and the technology of music information processing, he turned himself into an award-winning classical pianist. He is making his CSO debut with the First Piano Concerto by Chopin.

“I worked with him on a tour to Japan with my Polish orchestra [Polish National Radio Symphony],” said Alsop. “He’s also an improvising musician and pop musician as well, and that appeals to me. And he’s a YouTube star as well — I don’t keep track of these things, but I know he has a big following. He’s a great performer.”

For the second half of the program, Alsop leads the orchestra in Strauss’s career-making tone poem Don Juan— less concerned with the salacious conquests of the notorious womanizer represented by Mozart’s Don Giovanni, instead delving into the psychological transformation of the villain — as well as the second orchestral suite from Ravel’s ballet music to the Grecian epic romance Daphnis and Chloe.

Thursday, July 25

“This is more so a dance-inspired program,” said Alsop. “The idea really is the influence of dance on music.”

Guest conductor Alena Hron is the newest Taki Alsop Conducting Fellow, winner of the 2024–25 fellowship for women conductors that includes concert dates and intensive coaching by Alsop.

“She’s just become the first woman to head a Czech orchestra [South Czech Philharmonic],” said Alsop, “which is very exciting.” Alsop has long admired Walker’s Icarus in Orbit. A five-minute work composed for the New Jersey Youth Symphony in 2003, it is both sharply etched and mysterious. “It’s a wonderful piece,” said Alsop. “I’ve been wanting to do it, but I gave it to Alena.”

The July 25 program may be about dance, but it’s also something of a preview of Ravinia’s July 26–27 events. The theme for this year’s Breaking Barriers Festival, an annual Ravinia weekend showcasing female achievement in music and assorted fields, is women in space. Icarus, of course, is the young man of Greek myth whose hubris sends him flying too close to the sun. In Stravinsky’s ballet based on a Russian myth, the female firebird saves a young prince from deadly danger. Both she and Icarus are creatures of the air.

Bernstein’s suite of symphonic dances from West Side Story completes the dance circuit with Stravinsky’s Firebird. In between those works, Alsop welcomes back violinist Augustin Hadelich, who was a Ravinia Steans Music Institute fellow in 2008, as the soloist in Mendelssohn’s concerto.

Alena Hron Credit Petra Hajská / Prague Spring Festival

Friday, July 26

Exploring the Breaking Barriers theme, the program’s focus is musical depictions of space. Holst’s suite The Planets is a well-famed concert hall staple — in this performance, aptly featuring the Apollo Chorus of Chicago in its closing movement — but The Moons Symphony is very new. Alsop recorded the full, seven-movement work—complete with a large choir, children’s choir, and narrator—with the London Symphony in 2022. Ravinia’s performance will be a suite from the larger piece accompanied by visuals.

“It’s by an Australian woman named Amanda Lee Falkenberg,” said Alsop. “She sent it to me during the pandemic. She’s really built it into a huge educational and outreach initiative. It captures the programmatic narrative of the moons in our solar system. We never think about them, but they have properties just like the planets.

“I thought it would lend itself really well to having some panels with women who have been in space and are deeply engaged in space exploration. They’ll be around during the concert, and we’ll have some telescopes so people can look at the stars.”

Originally printed in Ravinia Magazine, reprinted with permission.