Russian conductor makes notable debut with CSO

Fri Dec 07, 2012 at 12:48 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Conductor Vasily Petrenko made his debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Mark McNulty

It’s been a good fortnight for music of Dmitri Shostakovich at 220 S. Michigan Avenue.

Last week Sir Mark Elder led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a brash and fiery account of the composer’s First Symphony. And Thursday night Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko made an impressive CSO podium debut with Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10.

Currently chief conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Petrenko takes over the prestigious Oslo Philharmonic next fall. Tall and slender, the 36-year-old Russian looks even younger than his years, yet Petrenko created notable sparks in his local bow with a strong and incisive performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10.

If his First Symphony shows his style in its brash and mercurial youthful form, the crucial Tenth from 1953 comes at one of the most historically significant times of Shostakovich’s life. Like an inescapable ghost, Stalin haunted the composer’s life with a constant threatening presence, and when the Soviet dictator died in 1953, Shostakovich immediately commenced work on a new symphony. His Tenth is, for many, the composer’s finest work in the genre, moving inexorably from bleak desolation to a triumphant finale in which one can almost feel Shostakovich’s relief and renewed energy.

The CSO can be tough on young conductors but Petrenko clearly knows what he is doing in this repertoire and the orchestra responded Thursday night. From the slow tread of cellos and basses that open the symphony, Petrenko skillfully charted the gradual ascent out of the darkness of the vast opening Moderato, with a patient yet firm hand. The conductor built up to the explosive climaxes—strident and jarring yet not overdone—as surely as the ensuing descent, eliciting a searching, unmoored expression with the closing section and piccolo solo almost Impressionistic.

The driving violence of the second movement—said to be Shostakovich’s musical portrait of Stalin—was duly unsettling in its taut malevolent fury. So too, Petrenko and the CSO conveyed the fleeting rays of sunshine in the equivocal light-stepping Allegretto. The suddenly dynamism and confidence of the closing movement—launched by a little rooster-like clarinet figure like a new day dawning—sealed the performance with a bristling and hectic headlong confidence, and Shostakovich’s musical motif blasting out leaves no doubt of the composer’s triumph at the coda.

This was an auspicious debut for the young Russian conductor. The CSO were at their considerable finest Thursday night, both as an ensemble and with several inspired solo contributions from bassoonist David McGill, piccolo Jennifer Gunn, and, especially, clarinetist Stephen Williamson whose wide and evocative range of playing from desolate gloom to klezmer-like charm was first-class all night.

Petrenko proved equally deft in the English and American music on the first half of the program.

The evening led off with Sir Edward Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture, amazingly not performed downtown by the CSO since led by Desiree Defauw in 1945. “Stout and steaky” was how Elgar described this rich and affectionate portrait of Edwardian London from the venerable Guildhall to the Cockney vendors, buskers and passing Salvation Army bands.

One doesn’t often hear Russian conductors in music of Elgar, but clearly Petrenko’s Liverpool post has provided some keen insight, as heard in this vital reading. The young conductor’s luxuriating in lyrical sections slightly impeded forward momentum, but this was an undeniably lively and colorful reading with Elgar’s picturesque elements making an impact.

Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto was the evening centerpiece. This most popular of American fiddle concertos may not hang together structurally with the finale’s fireworks failing to cohere with the reflective melancholy of the preceding two movements, yet with Barber’s craft and melodic gift, it’s hard to complain.

Robert Chen. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Robert Chen was the polished and sensitive solo protagonist Thursday night. The CSO concertmaster took an intimate approach to the soloist’s role, a legitimate interpretive stance in this most chamber-like of concertos. Even so, at times, the solo playing felt a bit too suave and small in scale, and one wanted greater projection and tonal heft.

Still, Chen’s airtight technical command and elegant musicianship provided its own rewards. He brought a hushed and interior expression to the Andante and sailed through the moto perpetuo finale with a silvery tone and easy elegance that made the brilliant fireworks seem almost Mozartian.

Petrenko showed himself a superb and sensitive accompanist delivering close-knit support, with Chen’s colleagues, oboist Eugene Izotov and clarinetist John Bruce Yeh, providing fine solo contributons.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. cso.org; 312-294-3000.

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