Pianist Chen brings a fresh approach to Rachmaninoff with IPO

Sun Jan 22, 2017 at 12:08 pm

By Hannah Edgar

Sean Chen performed Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 with Stilian Kirov and the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra Saturday night in Frankfort.

Sean Chen performed Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with Stilian Kirov and the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra Saturday night in Frankfort.

Transition seemed to be a theme this weekend in more ways than one.

Since David Danzmayr’s departure last season, the small but mighty ship that is the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) has been captainless. Rather than conduct its search for a new music director behind the scenes, however, the IPO framed its 2016-17 season around the project, cycling through conductor candidates for each of its five subscription concerts.

Rising conductor Stilian Kirov took the podium at Lincoln-Way East Community High School on Saturday night. The 32-year-old Bulgarian recently nabbed appointments at New Jersey’s Symphony in C (Alan Gilbert’s alma mater) and the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra in California. Nor is he any stranger to Chicagoland: he worked under Bernard Haitink at the CSO as an assistant conductor in the 2013-14 season.

Former IPO executive director Eska Koester also departed this season. Christina Salerno was appointed as her replacement just in time for both the new year and Saturday’s concert. In doing so, Salerno fills a position that has seen plenty of turnover in the recent past, and one hopes her appointment will be a lasting one in an institution with many moving parts.

The IPO’s third subscription concert, “Slavic Soul,” spotlighted composers east of the Danube, kicking off with folkish, nostalgic jaunts by Zoltán Kodály and György Ligeti and ending with Sergei Rachmaninoff’s famous and formidable Piano Concerto No. 3, featuring 28-year-old Sean Chen as soloist.

Dances of Galánta and Concert Românesc share many similarities: both are inspired by music from the Hungarian composers’ youth, replete with gypsy-esque moments, and a general progress from lyricism to fireworks. But because even early Ligeti is Ligeti, Concert Românesc (completed in 1951) is more daring in its wanderings, meandering to atmospheric atonality while Dances largely remains rooted in a more conventional idiom.

The IPO is only a 50-piece orchestra, a fact that’s easy to forget when the ensemble is at its most energetic. But the IPO’s size—as well as the bone-dry acoustics of its Lincoln-Way High bases—means it already faces an uphill battle acoustically and dimensionally, both of which it struggled with in the first half of the concert.

This was noticeable in Kodály’s Dances. While the ensemble’s smaller ranks create a more focused sound—especially in the strings, who number no more than 25 musicians total—the IPO’s angular interpretation was light on lushness in what was a very lush score. A laudable counterpoint to this was principal clarinetist Trevor O’Riordan’s buttery, beautiful cadenza, buttressed by silken contributions from the woodwinds overall.

The ensemble followed up with a conceptually taut, nuanced Concert Românesc, despite a hiccup or two in the natural horn solos and spotty intonation from the winds. The strings’ reliable agility and precision worked to their advantage in the tricky, breakneck runs, and acting concertmaster Elizabeth Huffman’s sprightly solos injected extra verve into the IPO’s interpretation.

However, that verve didn’t seem particularly consistent. The discrepancy was no fault of Kirov’s, who had a clear, energetic vision for both appetizers. But he seemed to be conducting to a larger ensemble, setting a high energy level that was only occasionally matched by the IPO.

For the second half, the orchestra ceded center stage to Chen, whom Kirov introduced as a friend and recurring collaborator. The two’s connection was indeed manifest in the performance, which impressed as much in its cohesion as its virtuosity: Kirov’s leadership was unerring throughout, and Chen was sensitively attuned to the orchestra, keeping his gaze on them nearly as often as he did the keyboard.

As for Chen himself, his interpretation of Rachmaninoff’s classic was one to remember. Too often pianists take a “more is more” approach to the Third’s impenetrable chords, but Chen made a strong case for a more lithe, flexible style. Even the first movement’s larger dense cadenza was intelligently articulated, eschewing smash-and-bang pyrotechnics for rhetorical cohesion. Interpretively, Chen made liberal use of rubato in a few instances that may have tempted melodrama in the hands of another pianist, but under his fingers, these liberties underscored the music’s pensiveness without descending into pathos.

For an encore, Chen offered his own arrangement of the Largo from Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 3 in C. Played freely, thoughtfully, and tenderly, it was a lovely balm after the heat of the Rachmaninoff, and a sweet sendoff from an artist to watch.

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