Rachmaninoff 3, Tchaikovsky 1: a Sunday at the Symphony

Two guests from Europe led a program of Russian music at Symphony Center over the weekend – I was happy to make it out for the final concert, this past Sunday’s matinee, snatching up the very last seat on the main floor available online about four hours prior to showtime.  The Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado led The Chicago Symphony with visiting Macedonian pianist Simon Trpceski in a program that featured Rachmaninoff’s mountainous Third Piano Concerto of 1909 and Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony, subtitled Winter Dreams, of 1866.

Rachmaninoff’s lyric romanticism was somewhat out of vogue amongst the musical elite when he was composing in the first half of the 20th century, but that didn’t prevent fans from fawning over his extremely difficult cadenzas and deft personal prowess at the keyboard.  In one of his eight appearances here in Chicago, in 1932, he played the Third Concerto, causing one newspaper critic at the Herald and Examiner to gush, “the most exciting event in the history of Orchestra Hall occurred last night.”

Simon Trpceski gave a great show – the piece does not necessitate the delicacy of a Beethoven sonata, but the accomplished Macedonian pianist gives the impression that he could deliver both the thunderous Rachmaninoff and the subtleties of softer pieces.  Trpceski manages the technical difficulty of the Third Concerto with apparent ease – he plays with a showmanship that many in Orchestra Hall appreciated.  Peering out at the audience, or back at the orchestra, his own performance added to the drama of an already dramatic piece.  The orchestral accompaniment is also a treat – Stephanie Jeong sat in the concertmaster’s chair for the concerto, and all played under the baton of guest conductor Pablo Heras-Casado.  Trpceski finished his engagement with a Chopin Waltz encore.

Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony was a bold entry onto the symphony scene, at a time when many composers were treading lightly into the format.  Phillip Huscher writes in the program notes that post-Beethoven, “starting a first symphony was a genuine act of courage.”  Tchaikovsky’s came out when he was 26, his first major work.  The subtitle Winter Dreams could be interpreted as a stab at program music, but that doesn’t seem to have been the composer’s intention.  The work lays out much of what would become characteristic Tchaikovsky over the course of his career – selective use of brass and percussion, piccolo, and a hum of strings laid down as a backdrop.  Huscher writes that material from this work ends up permeating others throughout Tchaikovsky’s career.

Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado’s engagement with the symphony, his first since 2015, made it clear that the conductor is comfortable working with the space and our Orchestra.  Concertmaster Robert Chen returned to his regular chair for the Tchaikovsky – not the only one to take stage after intermission; the symphony required more musicians than the concerto.  By the end, the players had revved up the crowd enough to carry us smiling into the freezing rain for our voyages home, having filled our Sunday with the fire of Rachmaninoff and the ice of Tchaikovsky’s Winter Dreams.

Thanks for reading.


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