Igor Levit received the Gilmore Artist Award earlier this year, a recognition of extraordinary piano artistry similar to a MacArthur Fellowship (the “Genius Grant”). Nominations for the Gilmore award are made in secret, without the pianists’ knowledge (like MacArthur nominees), to an anonymous six-member panel of music professionals, who name a new recipient every four years. Ravinia President and CEO Welz Kauffman was a member of the panel for the 2002 award.
Leonard Bernstein’s “political overture” Slava! is foremost a tribute to his longtime friend and the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, whose nickname was “Slava,” the Russian word for “glory.” It also welcomed Slava as the new director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, DC, with themes from Bernstein’s musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the address of the White House.
Mstislav “Slava” Rostropovich was not only once a student of Dmitri Shostakovich, but later a friend and frequent artistic partner. Both of Shostakovich’s cello concertos were written for and premiered by Slava.
Leonard Bernstein was often outspoken about his politics, and recently Igor Levit has entered that same realm, decrying the rhetoric accompanying the rise of right-wing factions in Europe and the United States. One of Levit’s close friends, a writer for Germany’s Der Spiegel, observes that the pianist’s “art, life, and politics are all one. You have to understand suffering, the state of the world, in order to understand music.” And Levit himself has said, “The idea that art is an excuse for not engaging [with politics] is utterly ridiculous.”
Igor Levit gave his first Chicago recital in Ravinia’s Martin Theatre in 2015 and gave another downtown last spring; his return to Ravinia also marks his Chicago Symphony Orchestra debut.
Maurice Ravel was inspired to write his Piano Concerto—later one of Leonard Bernstein’s signature performance pieces, and the only work he ever played at Ravinia as a pianist—after encountering American jazz firsthand on a concert tour in 1928 and with the growing popularity of jazz in Paris. The first ideas came to him on a train, like with George Gershwin (who Ravel once refused as a student, not wanting him to become “a second-rate Ravel”) and his Rhapsody in Blue, another Bernstein specialty.
Shortly after Leonard Bernstein became music director of the New York Philharmonic, he led the orchestra on a Russian tour featuring Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony as the closing piece of the program. Cold War tensions were having a chilling effect on both Bernstein and Russian artists, including Boris Pasternak, the author of the recently published Doctor Zhivago, whose title character lamented the reality of “saying the opposite of what you feel and groveling before what you dislike.” Bernstein had to renounce his liberal beliefs to the McCarthyist US government to obtain his passport, and Shostakovich’s Fifth was supposedly written to regain favor with the Soviet regime after similar censure. Both Pasternak and Shostakovich attended the final concert on the tour and rejoiced in Bernstein’s then-unfamiliar, energetic rendition, revealing the true meaning of Shostakovich’s score: a celebration of the human spirit.
The final movement of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony is famed not only for its “big finish” combining a brass fanfare with militaristic rhythm, but also for combining and resolving the tension and jocularity of the brass from the first two movements with the unease and mournfulness of the woodwinds and strings in the third, one the most emotionally moving of its kind.
When Dmitri Shostakovich’s son Maxim first conducted at Ravinia in 1982, the program featured the composer’s Fifth Symphony.
Nancy and George Goldstein Memorial Guest Artist Fund