Pianist, Chicago Philharmonic strike sparks with Romantic program

Mon Mar 15, 2010 at 12:30 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Pianist Vladimir Ovchinnikov performed Tchaikovsky with the Chicago Philharmonic Sunday night

It was heartening to see such a large turnout for the Chicago Philharmonic’s concert Sunday night at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall in Evanston. Just a little over a year ago, the orchestra’s economic picture was so shaky, it was forced to present several chamber programs to get its finances back on track.

With music director Larry Rachleff on the podium for the first time this season, the Philharmonic played with impressive fire and dedication in two big Romantic works.

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto in B-flat minor may not exactly be repertorial terra incognita, but when you have a Tchaikovsky Competition Gold Medal winner (1982) as the soloist, there’s not a whole lot to quibble about.

Even with winning both the Tchaikovsky and the Leeds competitions—the only pianist to ever do so—Vladimir Ovchinnikov is not a prominent name outside of Russia, apparently preferring to teach and perform mostly in his native country.

As one would expect of an artist with those credentials, Ovchinnikov’s technical arsenal is faultless and complete. The pianist displayed both power and iron-fingered dexterity in the opening movement, not dropping a single note. Still there were times when the Russian’s playing seemed rather cool and even a bit cautious, Ovchinnikov pulling back in tempo at the coda, which caused some momentary lack of coordination with the orchestra.

While the Andantino’s expression was poised but with emotion kept at a distance, Ovchinnikov rose to the bravura challenges of the finale superbly. The Russian’s powerful passagework and commanding octaves made for a thrilling ride with equally impassioned support served up by Rachleff and the Philharmonic members.

Larry Rachleff

The vast popularity of Dvorak’s final three symphonies is such that it tends to encourage the neglect of his earlier works in the genre. Props to Rachleff for balancing Sunday’s program with Dvorak’s rarely heard Symphony No. 6.

The opening Allegro offers one of those indelible Dvorak themes that it’s hard to get out of one’s head, and the movement is rounded off with such a boisterous coda, it’s hard to see where Dvorak can go next. The Adagio may not be one of his most memorable slow movements but it has lovely moments, even including a lyrical non-screaming twig piccolo solo.

The Scherzo offers one of Dvorak’s finest Furiants, the Czech folk rhythms given incisive accents by Rachleff and the orchestra, and if the finale wears its debt to Brahms’ Second Symphony a bit too obviously, it makes for an undeniably exciting closer.

Rachleff and the Philharmonic gave this attractive work first-class advocacy, the orchestra’s rich burnished strings providing the right Central European sonority. The conductor paced and balanced his forces with fine skill and—a couple wind bobbles apart—the orchestra performed with corporate polish and dynamic commitment, the final bars exhilarating in their brassy impact.

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment