On November 15, 2018, in a program to be repeated November 16, 17 and 18, Danish conductor Thomas Søndergård, music director of the Royal Scottish National Opera, led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Ukranian/Australian pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk in a double debut at Symphony Center, Chicago.
– Jean Sibelius Nocturne and Ballade from King Christian II Suite, Op. 27, 1898
These selections from a lesser-known work of Sibelius, with Søndergård in expressive and firm control at the helm, were played with an acute sensitivity to mood and texture, a transparency and clarity that were captivating. The opening Nocturne from King Christian II is almost deliriously lyrical, while the deeply contrasting closing Ballade is heavily dramatic. The CSO flowed from one extreme to the other with rhythmically incisive and beautifully shaped interpretations, particularly evident in the spicy tambourine-accented climax of the Nocturne, a piece that is filled with many elements characteristic of the composer’s later work.
– Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23, 1874-75
Gavrylyuk’s playing has recently been described as “a blur of rapidly concentrated hand movements”, (Limelight Magazine San Francisco) and the pianist certainly demonstrated this type of furious mastery in his performance of Tchaikovsky 1, but his playing was also characterized by a delicacy, sublime lightness of touch and myriad shadings in-between.
From the first resounding opening chords of this powerful concerto, among the most famous in all classical music, Maestro, Orchestra and pianist took the audience on a smashing, romantic musical experience. The sweeping opening was appropriately showy, the soulful middle comprised of outstanding interplay between the pianist and the Orchestra, and the third was a thrilling race to the electrifying finale. Søndergård appeared to keep one eye on Gavrylyuk at all times, shaping and leading a superbly unified presentation.
In encore- Robert Schumann, Kinderszenen, Op. 15, Part 1 in G major, “Of Foreign Lands and Peoples”, 1838
Kinderszenen, a set of thirteen pieces of music for piano, originally titled Leichte Stücke (Easy Pieces) were crafted as adult reminiscences of childhood. Schumann described the titles of each portion, which he added after composing the music, as “nothing more than delicate hints for execution and interpretation”. This comment could almost serve as a description of Gavrylyuk’s performance itself- infinitely light, fresh and sweet, a finely wrought and even humorous sequel to the fiery Tchaikovsky.
– Sergei Rachmaninov Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Op. 13, 1895
The enormously ambitious First Symphony, a work about which the composer said many years later, “I believed I had opened up entirely new paths”, has been described as “the boldest and most interesting Russian symphony in the decade after Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique”. Filled with raw passion and contrasting dramatic themes, some semi-liturgical in nature, some with a dance-like gypsy music feeling, each movement in the piece begins with the same four-note figure, a strongly unifying device.
The main theme of the first movement, derived from the medieval Dies Irae plainchant, beloved of Rachmaninoff, constitutes a slow and powerful introduction, with a gentle second melody developing in the strings. Ultimately, both themes, contrasting strongly in volume as well as texture reappear; the movement ends suddenly with a bright, compelling fugue.
The second movement scherzo, opening with notes from the introduction and main theme of the first movement, continues to create a new tune with prior thematic material and closes quietly. A lyrical line in the third movement becomes darker, quieter, and almost disappears with stunningly restrained clarinets and plucked strings.
Ultimately, the finale, opening with a martial variant of Dies Irae, grows in richness before subsiding again into a march. Earlier familiar motifs appear and evaporate, while the superb CSO percussionists and brass add texture and color, carrying through to the final chords.
Søndergård guided the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with a sure and steady hand in the lush rendering of Sibelius and the two well-developed Russian masterpieces. This week, Joshua Wirt, tuba, is performing on the Rachmaninoff piece.
For information and tickets to all the great programming of The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, go to www.chicagosymphonyorchestra.org
All photos by Todd Rosenberg