Chicago Sun-Times and suntimes.com, Saturday March 24, 2012 3:10PM CDT
Marc-André Hamelin | Fran Kaufman
Pianist Hamelin standout in Russian program
Trumpeter Martin shines, conductor Kirill Petrenko puzzles
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
with Kirill Petrenko
Marc-André Hamelin, piano
and Christopher Martin, trumpet
Repeats Saturday at 8 p.m.
BY ANDREW PATNER
Even concerts of a top-tier ensemble such as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra are made up of building blocks that can fit with one another in different and unexpected ways.
Thursday night held a much-belated subscription concerts début by a North American piano wizard, a recently anticipated first appearance by a rising young Russian conductor, and a rare solo turn for an outstanding principal player all in a program of infrequently presented works by three major Russian composers.
High hopes were met in part. Kirill Petrenko, just turning 40, takes the music director position at Munich’s prestigious Bavarian State Opera in fall 2013, right after leading a new production of Wagner’s Ring at the nearby Bayreuth Festival that summer. More immediately, the Omsk-born conductor just hit a revival of Mussorgsky’s large and lengthy Khovanshchina out of the park at the Metropolitan Opera both in New York and over last Saturday’s international live radio broadcast. His conjuring of the mysterious and languorous Prelude from that circa-1880 work (in Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1958 orchestration) with the CSO was both moving and perfectly balanced, with principal clarinet Stephen Williamson perfection in his moody solo. (Including another brief excerpt, the “Dance of the Persian Maidens,” proved unnecessary except for another seductive and admirable solo turn from English horn Scott Hostetler.)
And the pairing of Canadian, Boston-based piano omnivore Marc-André Hamelin with the CSO’s widely envied first trumpet Christopher Martin in Shostakovich’s own C minor First Piano Concerto, Op. 35, proved inspired with each soloist throwing off one exciting turn after another. Written in 1933 by a 26-year-old who imagined a sunny life ahead, the work is as much a clever 20-minute romp through the Russian piano literature as it is a contribution to the same and Hamelin brought his own encyclopedic knowledge and experience to the constant crackle.
Martin knew he was following a CSO history with this piece where his predecessor Adolph “Bud” Herseth had given the first downtown performances, in 1949, and the most recent, 50 years later, in 1999. He gave a performance of clarity, power and rapidity that would have earned Herseth’s thumbs-up. Hamelin’s ingenious idea to offer as an encore -- one demanded by repeated curtain calls from the cheering, standing audience -- the first movement of Mozart’s deceptively challenging “simple” C Major Sonata, K. 545, makes one eager to hear him in his own pieces in May in the CSO’s “Keys to the City Piano Festival.” He should be a frequent guest on future CSO programs.
But where was Petrenko in all of this? And where was he in the no-concerto-soloists-or-big-tunes-to-carry-you Rachmaninoff Third Symphony? This choppy and often dull reading of the composer’s 1935-36 last symphony, Op. 44, in A minor, was evidence either of a conductor with little to say or difficulty communicating with players in rehearsal. The Third is isolated in Rachmaninoff’s late composing career -- after fleeing the Russian Revolution in 1917 he wrote nothing for nine years and then only six works total in the remaining 17 years of his life. And this, and its falling in between the Romantic and Modern styles in music history, make it a piece that needs great insight and inspirational advocacy to succeed. Both were lacking here.
Daniel Gingrich and Stephanie Jeong, sitting in their sections’ first chairs, offered horn and violin work that saved the performance from being merely a 40-minute slog and a puzzling disappointment.