Gilmore winner Gerstein makes electrifying CSO debut with Rachmaninoff

Fri Mar 05, 2010 at 4:18 pm

By Bryant Manning

It didn’t take long for Chicago to get on the touring radar of this year’s Gilmore Artist Award winner Kirill Gerstein, who received the prestigious quadrennial award in January. The Russian-American pianist, who divides his time between Massachusetts and Germany, joins an elite roster that includes Ingrid Fliter, Piotr Anderszewski and Leif Ove Andsnes. If the Gilmore can claim even an ounce of responsibility for those pianists’ astonishing successes, then things portend very well for the 30-year-old Gerstein.

His electrifying performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 Thursday night seemed a proper Orchestra Hall christening, replete with all the virtuosic heroics a $300K pianist should have at the ready. The Chicago Symphony and guest conductor Charles Dutoit were his energized partners who would, on occasion, overpower him as in the first movement.

Technically awesome from start to finish, Gerstein delivered a mostly temperate account of the showstopping concerto. Tempos were snappy and the pianist kept a cool distance from Rachmaninoff’s heart-on-sleeve sentimentality. It was a refreshing change for once to allow the music’s pathos to emerge naturally from within. The song-like Adagio had a sincere directness of expression and those thick, high E-major chords that punctuate the closing crescendo were most sublimely controlled.

Dutoit struck a perfect balance in the final Allegro scherzando, with his soloist in sparkling form. Gerstein plays with a real charisma and given his affinity for jazz, it will be a treat to soon hear him in a trans-Atlantic program.

It was not a night to remember for various section leaders. Principal horn Dale Clevenger, assistant principal flutist Richard Graef and even the usually infallible trumpeter Christopher Martin all slipped up in solo roles. And a dropped trombone mute seemed to echo on for hours.

Still, these individual kinks couldn’t erase from memory Dutoit’s searing account of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 (The Year 1905). While written in a post-Stalin world to celebrate the Soviet regime’s beginnings, Shostakovich relies heavily on nine revolutionary songs for his thematic material. The melodies are peculiarly beautiful and yet it is hard to find many reasons to rejoice in this fiercely nationalistic music.

The tensile extended introduction forms a vast sonic image of stillness, broken up only by the endless rumbles of Vadim Karpinos’ timpani. And in the bleak-as-night Adagio, the only signs of life are a wayward pizzicato.

But it’s the ear-shattering bravura of the second and last movements that lingers in the mind. (The use of twin bells in the finale, while arguably gratuitous, is a chilling touch.) Here the violent, blood-sodden character of this music stirs with its savage power, and the CSO braved every challenge like the world-class ensemble they are, in a performance that harkened back to the Solti days of yore.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday.; 312-294-3000.


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