At Ravinia Festival, the music's great; the underpass, not so much | Bleader

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

At Ravinia Festival, the music's great; the underpass, not so much

Posted By on 07.04.12 at 09:00 AM

In a Kate Smith tribute concert at Ravinia Monday night, opera-world powerhouse Stephanie Blythe explained that she was doing (though not imitating) the mid-20th century broadcast and recording queen because she wants to keep Smith's repertoire of great songs alive.

She delivered more than a dozen of those songs, concluding, as the appreciative audience knew she would, with Irving Berlin's "God Bless America." As Blythe clearly understands, Smith's rendition of that song—for better or worse—is a national icon.

Which leads me to a little digression.

The Ravinia Festival park has some icons of its own, most notably the Arts and Crafts-style Martin Theatre, where Blythe performed her chatty, cabaret-style show, and the splendid gate from the same era at the main entrance.

For years, the approach to the park from the west parking lot entailed a walk through a smaller replica gate, then across carefully monitored railroad tracks, from which you had a vista that included the big gate, flanked by gatehouses, and glimpses of the Martin beyond.

The train was very much a part of the mix, a functional, noisy, impossible-to-ignore reminder that the reason Ravinia exists is that the Chicago and Milwaukee Electric Railroad laid track there, needed to attract passengers, and thought an amusement park, which opened on the Ravinia grounds in 1904, would do it. Living history.

Sometimes the train would pull up and unload people, and you'd have to wait a while to cross the tracks. Like dealing with the weather, the wait could be irritating, but it was all intrinsic to the experience.

But some people really didn't like it. A Ravinia spokesperson tells me they got numerous complaints from folks waiting too long to get into popular events like a James Taylor concert.

So after the 2010 season, Ravinia dug itself a $5 million fix—an underpass that is now the only way to get to the main gate. It's a circuitous, fenced-in, concrete bunker of a thing, ugly yellow and so steeply ramped that Ravinia staff with wheelchairs are stationed on either side to ferry anyone who might not be able to handle the incline.

And, along with any interaction with the train, it has pretty much eliminated the visual impact of arrival. The smaller gate is now superfluous—a relic stranded on a precipice—while visitors, like so many chipmunks, submerge and then pop up from their underground passage in spitting distance of a ticket taker.

On July 4, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will be at Ravinia for an Independence Day concert that features Broadway vocalist Ashley Brown and a roster of patriotic songs. They'll start with the "The Star-Spangled Banner" and gradually work their way up to a grand conclusion with "God Bless America."

At Ravinia, they do know how to treat a musical icon.

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