Conlon, Chicago Symphony Orchestra serve up powerful Prokofiev

Thu Jul 16, 2009 at 4:14 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Sergei Prokofiev

Are there any more divergent musical opposites than Sergei Prokofiev and Robert Schumann? The German composer’s life and art virtually define Romanticism in his guileless flow of spontaneous passion even when the inspiration wasn’t always matched by thematic memorability (the Violin Concerto) or structural cohesion (Scenes from Goethe’s Faust).  Prokofiev, conversely, also had a ready fount of melody yet often fell back on a calculated technical brilliance and superficial glitz that failed to mask the lack of deeper values. 

Two masterworks by both composers were served up by James Conlon and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Wednesday evening at Ravinia.  

The ballet Romeo and Juliet, and the best of his concertos may be more frequently performed, but Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 is, arguably, the composer’s finest composition in any genre. Written in 1944, the Fifth is a powerful, idiosyncratic work imbued with heroic grandeur yet without sacrificing the composer’s essential metallic edge and cynical bite.

Unlike say, Shostakovich’s wildly overpraised Leningrad Symphony, Prokofiev’s Fifth manages to both reflect and transcend its time. The composer’s  dissonant, sharply rhythmic style takes elements of the 1920s Futurist movement while morphing into a more personal and chromatic language. The Soviets, somewhat encouraged by Prokofiev, embraced the symphony as reflecting the strength and future of the New Soviet Man, yet there is an unmistakable wry undercurrent throughout the symphony, most manifest in the coda’s bombastic triumph overtaken by relentlessly busy mechanistic counterpoint.

Conlon had a firm sense of the music, and drew a daunting powerful performance from the CSO Wednesday, a concert that, unfortunately, had plenty of empty pavilion seats.  What wasn’t always apparent in this interpretation was a sense of the music’s depths. The opening Andante’s sense of gathering strength and the music rising  out of darkness and  wartime privation was rather superficially skated over.

The performance gathered force as it continued, with the headlong energy of the driving Allegro marcato having the right sense of unbridled momentum. Again, the deeper shadows of the Adagio weren’t quite plumbed by Conlon, yet the finale made the requisite payoff, the thuderous final bars being equally thrilling and terrifying as the machine spins out of control. The CSO was at their finest in all sections, with special note of the violins’ staggering bravura and John Bruce Yeh’s characterful clarinet work throughout.

Garrick Ohlsson

Garrick Ohlsson has been a popular Ravinia guest for nearly three decades, and made his fourteenth appearance at the Highland Park festival  as soloist in Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor. 

Ohlsson is one of our finest Chopin, Beethoven, and Rachmaninoff players, possessed of a poetic sensibility allied to a steel-fingered technique that makes even the most knuckle-busting showpieces seem like child’s play.

While his performance of Schumann’s concerto displayed characteristic grace and refinement, Ohlsson didn’t seem himself Wednesday with a few minor but surprising digital slips in the first movement. Also the soloist never appeared quite in synch with Schumann’s Eusebius side, his playing rather loud and overemphatic, missing out on the gentler expression and fantasy in the Intermezzo. The final Allegro had the requisite energy and buoyant swing, but by Ohlsson’s standard this was an admirable rather than a memorable performance. Despite fine playing by the orchestra, Conlon’s accompaniment alternated unconvincingly between fussy detailing and generalized garrulity.

When Daniel Burnham died in 1912, the Chicago Symphony performed Siegfried’s Funeral Music in tribute to the visionary architect. In a nice bit of historical resonance, Wednesday’s program marked the centennial of Burnham’s Plan of Chicago by opening with a reprise of the Gotterdammerung excerpt, Conlon drawing a taut, powerful reading.

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