Jaap van Zweden conducts Denis Kozhukhin- A splendid evening with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Pianist Denis Kozhukhin acknowledges the audiences's standing ovation following his performance of Rachmaninov's "Piano Concerto No. 2" with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; photo by Todd Rosenberg
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On December 14th, 2017, Dutch conductor and violinist Jaap van Zweden, 26th director designate of the New York Philharmonic, led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in an ambitious yet fully realized program of important works, along with acclaimed Russian pianist Denis Kozhukhin. The program, to be repeated December 15th, 16th, and 19th, included:

 -Richard Wagner Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin, 1846-1848

 The Act I Prelude has been described as “a musical depiction of the Holy Grail as it descends to the Earth in the care of an Angelic host”. In a masterfully extended orchestral arc, it builds to a sensational climax before subsiding.

From the very first opening notes of the first-act Prelude, a clear and refined balancing of strings filled the listener with a sense of wonder. The great Chicago Symphony Orchestra brass was thoroughly strong, the woodwinds immediately responsive, the whole colorful, ceremonial and jubilant with indications of the darker mood to come.

The Sunday Times wrote that van Zweden, conducting Wagner, “has a great feeling for the ebb and flow of the composer’s musical cosmos”. His thorough control of pacing and his sense of the dramatic contributed to the very fine performance of this gem of the repertoire, veritably an 8 minute mini-version of the full opera.

Conductor Jaap van Zweden leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the Prelude to Act 1 of Wagner’s “Lohengrin”

– Sergei Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18, 1900-1901

This is a much-loved masterpiece, performed by Kozhukhin with eloquent expressiveness and elegance, at once resonant and heartfelt.

Van Zweden and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra were ideal collaborators, the Maestro encouraging when called for, and otherwise direct and supportive. The same can be said of the soloist; when he was the accompaniment, as in the Adagio, Kozhukhin’s circumspect virtuosity held the beautiful wind solos aloft. His adept articulation mastered the complex figures with extraordinary expressive energy. This is a piece of music both detailed and with a great arching trajectory; pianist and Orchestra mounted and crested together.

The first movement began a creative display of superb piano playing interposed with a lyrically exultant orchestra; it ends with a march. There was a tension created in the middle of this moderately rapidly paced movement that ascended to a great height, with all of the instruments raising the bar on intensity and superior performance with a fine control.

The second movement slowed down in preparation for the sensational and turbulent finale, beautifully portrayed with a near-constant flurry of notes between the piano and the orchestra, traversing up and down the scales. The ultimate climax was an explosive fanfare.

The Chicago Tribune wrote about Kozhukhin’s past presentation of this masterpiece, “(His) dazzling performance must have lifted Orchestra Hall a few feet off its foundation. It was hard, in fact, to imagine any pianist seizing this formidably difficult concerto in a mightier grip than this Russian firebrand.”

Denis Kozhukhin is soloist in Rachmaninov’s “Piano Concerto No. 2” with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and guest conductor Jaap van Zweden

-Kozhukhin then performed, in solo encore, Claude Debussy Préludes, Book 1: No. 8, “La fille aux cheveux de lin” (The girl with the flaxen hair), 1909-1910

Music writers have noted that, as the image of a girl with white-blond hair was often used as a symbol of purity and innocence, the “musical simplicity” of this prelude was tied in to these emotions. While the technical and harmonic elements hark back to the composer’s earlier musical compositions, the piece is, in fact, contemplative and dreamy, fully engaging the senses. As Kozhukihn played, one observed how his concentration as well as his arms, hands and fingers seemed choreographed to the music.

– Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op.64, 1888

The 5th as played this evening was fascinating; it was inspiring to witness in performance and gratifying to hear in the complexity of its orchestration. Filled with brilliant themes in the Andante – Allegro to the final great Finale, this is graceful music that was gracefully performed. Van Zweden kept the music moving fluidly with a deliberate pace in the opening movement as the music began to swell from its dark beginnings. The alternating climaxes of the brass and strings brought to fruition an intense and dramatic conception. The second movement Andante was compelling; the phrasing detail, particularly in the horn solos – with the lamenting themes in the winds- was fresh and passionate. The Waltz passed quickly into the Finale, beginning with a majestic march that accelerated smoothly into deliberate tempo in the Allegro vivace.

After the Rachmaninov piece, after the encore, and at the end of the concert, the audience was instantly on its feet, applauding long and hard and calling out “Bravo!” This was a thoroughly well done and well-appreciated performance.

For information and tickets to all the fine programming of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, go to cso website

All photos by Todd Rosenberg


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