Chicago Symphony serves up an offbeat seasonal take on Tchaikovsky

Fri Dec 18, 2009 at 11:43 am

By Bryant Manning

The Snow Maiden by Victor Vaznetsov
The Snow Maiden by Victor Vaznetsov

Who says holiday performances of Tchaikovsky are limited to waltzing flowers and sugar plum fairies? At Orchestra Hall Thursday night, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, guest conductor Alexander Polianichko, and the local experimental dramatic company Redmoon Theater offered a clever and compelling seasonal alternative to The Nutcracker by digging a little deeper into the Tchaikovsky backlog.

It doesn’t hurt that much of Tchaikovsky’s music is innately Christmassy and affectionate selections from Swan Lake and The Snow Maiden have a way of softening up even the most avowed Scrooges among us—either through its surfeit of ringing triangles, hearth-like string writing or memorable brass calls.

Redmoon artistic co-directors Frank Maugeri and Jim Lasko reimagined Swan Lake from ballet to puppet show, but with the clever add-on of projecting cut-out figures’ silhouettes onto an enormous screen that hung over the orchestra. To both sides of the main screen were two smaller screens that obscured the puppeteers who worked busily as they prepared the tale of Odette the swan-maiden and the Prince. A “team” in the backroom then quickly edited each new movement to provide “live film animation” to accompany the orchestra.

It was a marvel to see these simple shadow puppets deliver several elaborate scenes, including a hunting incident, a dance, and a poetic freefall from a cliff. These stark black-and-white visuals were almost evocative of a Tim Burton creation.

Yet at the same time they were perhaps too dark of a companion to Tchaikovsky’s warm and luscious score. This unlikely marriage of image and sound will no doubt connect with children and jaded concertgoers, but purists may want this sublime ballet music without all the extra-narrative distractions. That only eight musical sections made it into this production also gave Tchaikovsky’s sublime score short shrift. Even so, Redmoon’s wondrous technological experiment is worth a look as it repeats this afternoon and Saturday night.

Alexander Polianichko

For a much simpler presentation, Redmoon actor Alex Balestrieri energetically narrated nine fragments from The Snow Maiden as adapted from Alexander Ostrovsky’s play by CSO Artistic Programming Advisor Gerard McBurney. He was given vibrant musical readings from Polianichko, who arrived in Chicago with a brand new feather in his cap. Polianichko was recently bestowed the title by President Dmitry Medvedev an “Honored Artist of Russia, ” and he proved a worthy beneficiary of this award as this old Russian folklore teemed with abundant pictorial and narrative drama. In the melodramatic Andantino where the snow maiden is unsure of what lies in her heart, Polianichko provoked some of the most intoxicatingly beautiful string playing of the season.

Opening the program was The Storm, a Tchaikovsky student composition not performed by the CSO since the days of Theodore Thomas (1899). It wasn’t hard to understand why since this rambunctious but pedestrian little overture is a mostly disjointed work with uneven brass writing that never fluidly sets in motion. Still, what little rousing and tempestuous drama there was made for a curious listen on this particular winter’s night.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday.; 312-2944-3000.

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