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Dutoit offers clarity to children’s classic, Beethoven stalwart

Chicago symphony orchestra


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Updated: December 11, 2012 6:05AM

The itinerant and highly experienced Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit is a welcome guest at Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts.

With a two-week residency most years in recent times, Dutoit, 76, brings eclectic and appealing programs, a wide range of interests and an ability to draw attention to the music despite his highly unusual podium presence and method.

Next week he goes all-Russian with works of Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky/Rimsky-Korsakov. This week he offers two English works rarely heard in the concert hall along with one of the most frequently programmed at the center of the Austro-German repertoire. And he delivers his customary results.

Benjamin Britten’s “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” was a postwar commission from the BBC for an educational film. Judging from the reaction from audience members, it is widely remembered from recordings and children’s and school concerts, but it’s not often offered live for grownups. (It hadn’t been heard downtown on a subscription program since Georg Solti led it 34 years ago.)

Taking a brief theme from Britain’s major 17th century composer Henry Purcell, the then-32-year-old Britten created a 16-minute hop, skip and jump through the various “families” of the orchestra from piccolo to percussion, all tied together with an ingenious fugue with a return of the Purcell theme woven in. Dutoit and the CSO absolutely made the case for this as adult fare and as a great showcase for this flexible, virtuosic orchestra.

Illinois native and Israeli violinist Gil Shaham is a welcome guest, too, and his two decades of concertizing with the CSO have held a string of shimmering pearls. Of late, he’s been particularly interested in American and British concertos of the 1930s, and Thursday night he added that of William Walton to those of Elgar, Korngold and Barber. Shaham takes this half-hour hodgepodge as far as anyone since its dedicatee and commissioner, the legendary Jascha Heifetz.

The piece is still a bit screwy, though, with a tarantella in the middle, outer sections heavily indebted to Prokofiev and no slow movement. Although Dutoit also takes this piece around, this was Shaham’s performance, with the conductor seeming to play, um, second fiddle with large swatches of beautifully orchestrated but rather inconsequential music.

Beethoven’s A Major Seventh Symphony of 1811-12 is played so often that calendars count its appearance at Orchestra Hall in spaces of months not years. Still, it is as perfect and commanding as any work ever written, and if Dutoit made nothing new of it, he didn’t need to. As with former CSO music director Daniel Barenboim, he reads the score as calling for a magnetic, non-stop ride through all four movements. Perhaps preceding it with the Walton was a reminder of just how hard it is to make a work so structurally perfect.

Andrew Patner is critic at large for WFMT-FM (98.7).

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