Trifonov provides triumphant CSO finale with Bates concerto premiere 

Fri Jun 21, 2024 at 10:03 am

By Tim Sawyier

Daniil Trifonov performed Mason Bates’ Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Daniil Trifonov is one of today’s luminaries at the keyboard, and will be a Chicago Symphony Orchestra artist-in-residence for the 2024-25 season. Thursday he appeared with the orchestra and conductor Lahav Shani in the thrilling local premiere of Mason Bates’ Piano Concerto in the final program of the CSO season.

Bates, the CSO’s Mead Composer-in-Residence from 2010-15, completed the concerto for Trifonov in 2021, the result of a co-commission from the Philadelphia Orchestra and San Francisco Symphony. Since debuting the work with the Philadelphians in January 2022, Trifonov has made it something of a calling card, offering the West Coast premiere with San Francisco and also taking it to Rome and Rotterdam. Bates’ new score is a technicolor barnstormer. With advocacy such as Trifonov offered Thursday, it is easy to imagine this new work entering the slender catalogue of major American works in the genre.

Cast in a traditional three-movement architecture, “Movement 1” opens with a transparent chorale in the piano that segues into a syncopated groove, underpinned with bongo and conga. There are whiffs of the Ravel G Major Concerto’s jazz elements, but Bates’ DJ-informed idiom remains entirely his own. Following a cadenza evocative of a Bach Invention, a brass fanfare enters near the end and provides a bridge to “Movement 2.”

This inner movement takes the analogous central one of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 as its point of departure. (Bates said he immersed himself in the concerto repertoire during the composition, and makes this connection explicit.) Soloist and orchestra are in different sound worlds, Trifonov playing with melancholic solitude while the orchestra remains generally more optimistic. They find each other only near the end of the movement in an extended passage of cinematic ardor worthy of Rachmaninoff.

The “Movement 3” finale is in what Bates called a “jazz-minimalist” vein, organized around a few rhythmic cells with much storming up and down the keyboard for the soloist. The texture thins out only near the end to build to a precipitous climax that is both solidly in the Romantic virtuoso tradition yet thoroughly of our time.

Trifonov was a wonder in this outing. He plays Bates’ score with the pristine clarity of Bach or Mozart, yet also brings enormous power and dynamism when called for. Shani presided solidly over Bates’ technicolor accompaniment, attentively keeping soloist and orchestra aligned in Bates’ often whirlwind writing. As with Trifonov’s last outing with the orchestra in Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto, this was a season highlight that had the audience on the edge of its seat and earned an immediate standing ovation, which Bates was on hand to share.

As an encore Trifonov offered the third of Prokofiev’s Op. 17 Sarcasms for Piano, Allegro precipitato, played with hair-raising assertion that allowed one to appreciate the affinity with the Bates work.

Lahav Shani conducted the CSO in music of Avni, Bates and Tchaikovsky Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

The evening began with another local premiere, that of Tzvi Avni’s Prayer, a ten-minute work for string orchestra. Avni wrote the work in 1961, revising it in 1969, though in the interim the Israeli composer had spent time in America and fallen under the influence of Edgard Varèse.

Prayer is not the peaceful meditation one might expect, and more clearly reflects spiritual struggle and grappling. It opens with a plaintive chanting in the unison violas, with piquant isolated dissonances. A martial motoric passage follows, reminiscent of Shostakovich, and this alternates with thinner, more desiccated sections. The opening melody returns near the close, elaborated across the sections, before concluding softly in the muted cellos. Shani led this first local reading in an organic fashion that captured Avni’s myriad influences and singular voice.

The second half was devoted to a largely earthbound account of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74 (“Pathétique”). As in his last CSO appearance in Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, Shani’s approach here was overly generalized—able to whip up a storm but not convincingly organize it. He eschews both a score and a baton, but there are more subtleties in this work than were apparent Thursday night and entrances were often muddy.

Keith Buncke launched the performance glowingly intoning its mournful bassoon melody, and his clarinet counterpart Stephen Williamson was similarly inspired throughout the performance. Still, Tchaikovsky’s ardent music often simply happened without a clear sense of direction or purpose. Craig Morris, a former CSO principal trumpet for a brief period and currently at the University of Miami, was guest principal Thursday, and the consistently flubbed attacks of his nervous evening did not help matters; nor did Shani’s unwillingness to tap the brakes on the trombone blaring in tutti passages.

The off-kilter 5/4 waltz tripped along graciously enough, but there is greater sweep to be found here as well. The indelible Allegro molto vivace had moments of swagger and propulsion, yet also began to feel repetitious Thursday night. The closing Adagio lamentoso went best, with Shani here conveying the great anguish of this music, the lone tam-tam strike registering as a death knell as the symphony extinguishes.


Teng Li, currently principal viola of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was sitting principal Thursday night, and will be staying: she has just been named the CSO’s new principal viola, effective this fall, and was an understated presence at the front of the section.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Trifonov provides triumphant CSO finale with Bates concerto premiere ”

  1. Posted Jun 26, 2024 at 9:00 am by Cynthia Weglarz

    Thank you for your words about this program.I witnessed it on Sunday afternoon and was totally swept away by the program choices, the conductor and the Piano Concerto soloist, Trifonov.It was spectacular.

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