Petrenko, Lewis, CSO combine for a dutiful ‘Masterworks’ kickoff

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For the Sun-Times

One of the many pleasures of attending live performance is the possibility of surprise. In many cases, you simply don’t know how a performance will turn out. Even when a concert is a repeat, or an opera is in the middle of its run, there can be a different energy at work. And even when a program is the same on paper as another one given in the recent past, different artists will have different takes, even on the very familiar.

CHICAGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA Vasily Petrenko, conductor; Paul Lewis, piano When: Repeats at 8 p.m tonight and Jan. 9,10 Where: Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Tickets: $33-$200; $10 students with I.D. Info: Visit

So it was Wednesday evening at Orchestra Hall in the first Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert of the new year — an intermissionless 6:30 p.m. “Afterwork Masterworks” presentation with the same content as the three subscription concerts coming this week, save without Elgar’s early 1900s overture/tone poem “In the South (Alassio).” For by an odd twist, the last time either Beethoven’s “Emperor” Piano Concerto or Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances” had been heard at the CSO was together on a program two years ago.

<em>Vasily Petrenko | Photo by Mark McNulty</em>

Vasily Petrenko | Photo by Mark McNulty

David Robertson was the conductor then, in May 2012, and Emanuel Ax the soloist. Here it was the young Russian Vasily Petrenko on the podium and the deeply insightful classicist Briton Paul Lewis, 42, at the keyboard. The lure was surely the Beethoven, and Lewis. And yet Wednesday, at least, the surprise was how much Petrenko brought out of the late Rachmaninoff — 1940 and his last as it turned out — this work of exile often consigned to pops evenings.

That’s not to say that it is not always fascinating to hear and see Lewis play (barring a yet-to-be-experienced surprise). He’s one of our supreme Schubertians and greatest recitalists, and his survey of the other four Beethoven concertos here and elsewhere has always offered food for both thought and pleasure. And Wednesday, particularly in quiet solo lines and in harmonic and movement transitions — always Lewis specialties — there was a sense of going to the edge of the seat. But whether it was Petrenko’s seeming passivity with the orchestra or an understandable lack of desire of all parties to fall into the “battle of soloist and orchestra” trap, the overall sense of the performance at times seemed dutiful.

The 1809 E-Flat Major concerto, Op. 73, the last of the Beethoven five, divides some pianists and critics while usually thrilling audiences, and perhaps there is just less interesting artistic information in the work and less of the subtlety of the type that Lewis works wonders with. Or it could have just been a first performance of four in a very busy week and on a very, very cold night.

All the more reason that Petrenko quite astonished with the Rachmaninoff. The haunting saxophone solo of the first movement is always a highlight — here played just approaching deep sadness by Tim McAllister. But Petrenko took the entire 40-minute piece seriously and impressively brought out a depth and complexity in all three movements. Rachmaninoff lived his life on the edge of popularity and dismissal, success and unhappiness, performer and composer. His proponents argue for seriousness. Petrenko and the CSO made that case.

Andrew Patner is critic-at-large for WFMT-FM.

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