Chicago Philharmonic launches season with powerful Rachmaninoff

Mon Oct 11, 2010 at 11:34 am

By Bryant Manning

Julia Siciliano was the soloist in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with conductor Robert Trevino and the Chicago Philharmonic. Photo: Leszek Hanienik

With its economic woes still lingering from the not-so-distant past, the Chicago Philharmonic is perfectly happy pushing the status quo with hearty, populist programming. And why shouldn’t it be? Whether it is recent performances of Beethoven’s Ninth or the Tchaikovsky B-flat piano concerto, superb ensemble playing of these familiar classics to lively crowds has given this nonprofit orchestra a much needed lift. They market themselves as “Chicago’s other great orchestra,” and on sound alone they often live up to the billing.

Sunday night’s season opener at Pick-Staiger Hall was no exception, with a tuneful all-Russian program featuring two Rachmaninoff standbys and a Shostakovich curtain-raiser. Guest conductor Robert Trevino—all of 26 years old—left a considerable impression in his CPO debut with incisive and thrilling direction. Having been invited to audition for assistant conductor posts with the Philadelphia, Cleveland and Seattle orchestras in the past year, he is clearly a conductor to watch.

And he wasn’t the only young-blood artist on stage, as recent University of Michigan grad Julia Siciliano gave an admirable account of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. This was a finely crafted if sober rendition of this concert-hall staple, with all the requisite tune-spinning set blithely in motion. When at times her pianism felt too literal and safe, she’d quickly toss out her roadmap and brave a sudden interpretive twist. There was something fresh about her effusive outpouring in the Adagio’s weepy climax, which suffused this warhorse with some Russian exaggeration often absent elsewhere in her performance. The music almost became more magical when she let her guard down. Principal horn Neil Kimel provided a brisk, rounded call in the movement’s memorable solo.

Heated and large as this orchestral voice was under Trevino, it often smothered Siciliano under its smoldering sound. This was a mixed blessing: the rich, burnished strings were as attractive as ever and yet were inclined to steal her thunder, such as in the opening movement’s rigid “Alla marcia” section. Yet in a brilliant finale, both forces seemed more harmonious by giving a powerfully roundhouse conclusion, with the evening’s soloist earning a well-deserved ovation.

The ensemble, which includes members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra along with familiar local freelancers, were first rate collaborators in Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 in E Minor. Trevino dug in vigorously for the hour-long work and never looked back, shaping a fluid and buoyant account of this sprawling and lyrical opus. Heavy sonorities trumped all and sounded particularly gorgeous in this warmly acoustical venue. This orchestra, at least on Sunday night, seemed to have no ceiling on their decibel production.

Strong playing emerged especially from clarinet principal Linda Baker and the muscular CPO brass section.

Opening the concert, Shostakovich’s Festive Overture was virtually shot from a cannon. At a touch over five minutes, this is Shostakovich of another stripe: jocular, tastefully bombastic and wholly optimistic. Written shortly after Stalin’s death, it’s easy to understand why. The Philharmonic rose to the occasion with plenty of ceremonial verve that must have resembled something of the spirit at the Bolshoi premiere some 56 years ago.

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One Response to “Chicago Philharmonic launches season with powerful Rachmaninoff”

  1. Posted Oct 12, 2010 at 8:08 am by Titus Ghica

    What an opportunity I missed! I’m looking forward to see the next appearance of Robert Trevino.

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