BY KYLE MACMILLAN | FOR THE SUN-TIMES
During an especially fertile creative period in 1803-04, Ludwig van Beethoven composed the first-ever concerto for piano trio, and it remains the only work for that combination to achieve significant acclaim.
Although the Concerto in C major for Piano, Violin and Cello, “Triple,” might not rank among Beethoven’s greatest works, it still has plenty to offer, as music director Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra made clear Thursday evening at Orchestra Hall.
CHICAGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA Riccardo Muti, conductor Recommended When: Repeats 1:30 p.m March 6 and 8 p.m. March 7 Where: Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan Tickets: $33-$220 Info: (312) 294-3000; cso.org
To succeed, it requires three strong individual soloists who can gel as a trio and, in turn, mesh well with the orchestra. This version certainly had that, with a responsive Muti making sure it all fit together smoothly and instilling the whole with verve and fitting Beethovenian élan.
As expected of a well-known piano soloist, Jonathan Biss was up to the task. But drawing the most attention were two musicians who are not so used to the spotlight yet came off as though they were: associate concertmaster Stephanie Jeong and assistant principal cellist Kenneth Olsen.
The particular stand-out was Olsen. The cello has the most prominent role of the three solo instruments, especially in the slow second movement, and he made the most of it, playing with impressive self-assuredness and expressiveness and a full, pleasing amber tone. Right behind him was Jeong, who also demonstrated no shortage of poise and technical facility.
Muti opened the first half with Gyórgy Ligeti’s “Lontano” for Orchestra (1967), which seemed like something of an outlier on a program that otherwise consisted of two familiar 19th-century masterworks, but perhaps that was somehow the point.
This compact work presents an otherworldly, sometimes stark soundscape with moments of shimmering calm, agitated outbursts and penetrating dissonances. The overall feeling is one of uncomfortable suspension, with instruments entering, blending and exiting at times with such nuance that is not always clear what we are hearing.
Working without a baton, Muti deftly sculpted this piece, carefully controlling the dynamics, which at times were so soft as to be almost imperceptible, and creating the sense of intimacy it demands.
As winning as the Beethoven was, arguably the evening’s high point came on the second half, with a sparkling account of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor, “Little Russian” – part of Muti’s season-long presentation of the composer’s complete symphonies.
Muti brought a wonderful sense of buoyancy and energy to this music, conveying both its scale and openness and nicely capturing the idiomatic, folk flavor of what is perhaps the most Russian of the composer’s works in this form.
Highlights abounded. It was almost impossible, for example, not to get swept up in Muti and the orchestra’s emphatic Allegro vivo portion of the first movement with its brisk, spunky tempos and melodic fluidity or their fleet, high-spirited take on the Scherzo third movement.
The musicians seemed to be especially enjoying themselves in this symphony, which puts nearly section in the spotlight at one time or another and offered many opportunities for solos, including Jennifer Gunn’s high-flying piccolo accents in the Scherzo.
Before the work began, Muti bestowed the Theodore Thomas Medallion for Distinguished Service on David McGill, who served as the orchestra’s principal bassoonist from 1997 through last year. In a moving, very personal tribute, the maestro praised McGill’s inimitable sound and his lasting contributions to the orchestra.
Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.