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CSO responds to magical touch of a Russian maestro

There were no vocalists or dancers on stage at Symphony Center on Thursday night as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed an enchanting program of works by Sibelius, Mozart, Arvo Part and Tchaikovsky.

Yet everything played by the CSO seemed to sing, and to move with a grace, delicacy and rapturous quirkiness under the baton of the great Russian conductor, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, who led the CSO in an all-Shostakovich program earlier this month, and has stepped in for Riccardo Muti this week as the maestro recovers from hip surgery.

At the of 84, Rozhdestvensky cuts an impish figure, with sparkling eyes, a generous grin and a halo of white hair. And this is a rare opportunity to observe the fascinating, intensely engaged, but minimalist conducting style of a master conductor who has seen the great sweep of political and cultural history during his long association with Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre, as well as orchestras and opera houses throughout Europe.

CHICAGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

Highly recommended

When: Feb. 12 and 13 at 8 p.m.

and Feb. 16 at 7:30 p.m.

Where: Symphony Center,

220 S. Michigan

Tickets: $36- $260

Info: (312) 294-3000;

http://www.cso.org

Run time: 2 hours

with one intermission

Rozhdestvensky stuck with the announced program with a single exception – replacing a work by Gyorgi Ligeti, the modernist Hungarian composer, with “Rakastava,” a rarely heard but wondrously strange, muted but shimmering piece by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.

Rooted in Finnish folklore, but with a pre-Impressionist sound, “Rakastava” went through a number of incarnations, including one for male chorus and strings. But the 1911 version heard here was solely instrumental – a magically layered use of the orchestra’s string section. The piece weaves a sort of gossamer veil of sound – initially plaintive, thoughtful, even mournful, then lighter and more spirited, and finally fuller, with the subtlest use of folk dance rhythms. Concertmaster Robert Chen’s violin anchored this final section, with the darker tones of cellos and bass players creating a haunting undertow.

The 11-minute work also displayed Rozhdestvensky’s conducting style. Eschewing the podium, he uses his baton sparingly, but with a jockey’s attack (with his left hand a notably expressive partner), and he is fearless when it comes to moving through slow, muted, gauzy passages. He also has the unusual habit of audibly tapping his baton on the edge of his wooden music stand at moments, often on a beat that is a rest.

Gennady Rozhdestvenshy led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Mozart's "Clarinet Concerto in A Major," with Stephen Williamson as clarinet soloist. (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)

Gennady Rozhdestvenshy led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Mozart’s “Clarinet Concerto in A Major,” with Stephen Williamson as clarinet soloist. (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)

The program moved on to familiar, ravishingly melodic territory with Mozart’s “Clarinet Concerto in A Major,” with Stephen Williamson, principal clarinetist of the CSO, as soloist. Williamson’s sound is ravishing, with the lush, honeyed richness of a human voice that fully suggested Mozart’s operatic genius. Though he seemed to be wrestling with a number of mechanical problems during the first two movements (a change of reed, adjustments of keys), Williamson never lost the alternately seductive and magisterial flow of the work, with Rozhdestvensky and the orchestra in full collaboration.

Opening the second half of the evening (and receiving its first performance by the CSO), was “Orient & Occident,” another piece for string orchestra – this one by the contemporary Estonian composer, Arvo Part. Rozhdestvensky masterfully captured the push and pull of the lines of sound here so that at times it was like listening to breathing – the sound of expansion and compression. A long-held silence at the end of the piece was ideal.

Completing the program was Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings in C Major,” another lushly melodic string masterpiece. Familiar to dance fans as the score for a popular Balanchine ballet, it is a work of irresistible sweep. And Rozhdestvensky and his musicians luxuriated in its grandeur, in its expansive waltz movement, in its more elegiac section, and in the Russian-themed finale rooted in a folk melody. Beautiful.

NOTE: Maestro Rozhdestvensky will lead the Chicago Youth in Music Festival open rehearsal on Monday, Feb. 15 at 7:30 pm.  Tickets are free but required. For more information visit cso.org/cymf.