Youthful Vasily Petrenko proves he’s a force to be reckoned with
BY ANDREW PATNER December 7, 2012 2:56PM
Guest conductor Vasily Petrenko leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the Barber Violin Concerto, with concertmaster Robert Chen as soloist, Thursday at Symphony Center. | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2012
◆ 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday
◆ Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan
◆ Tickets, $30-$212
◆ (312) 294-3000;
Updated: January 9, 2013 6:06AM
With a number of young conductors being thrown before major orchestras while still in their 20s, it’s refreshing to see and hear a Chicago debut by a relatively senior figure of 36 who has been paying his dues ensemble by ensemble, country by country.
Vasily Petrenko, St. Petersburg-born and trained, now holds top spots with British youth and regional orchestras and will take over the Oslo Philharmonic next season. He also already has extensive recording and opera experience. He is long, lean and photogenic, but, at least with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Orchestra Hall Thursday night, without affected moves, fussiness or showboating. His individual handling of pieces and composers as a varied as a very British Elgar overture, American Samuel Barber’s violin concerto and Shostakovich’s 1953 death-of-Stalin Tenth Symphony and sense of section sound and balancing also gave signs that this is someone to watch for the long haul.
Edward Elgar is much beloved for too small a handful of his pieces, and under both Georg Solti and Daniel Barenboim, each with London connections, the CSO has been a fairly serious Elgar orchestra. His 1900-01 “Cockaigne” Overture (“In London Town”), though, has eluded downtown performance since 1945. Petrenko played the 15-minute work as music, showing that the usual adjectives “blustery” and “perky” are tiredcliches. It is hard to tell sometimes if Elgar captured an English turn of the century spirit in music or helped to create it. Either way, or both, this piece, with both mythical and Cockney swagger as its name alludes to, is a wonderful opener and the orchestra’s low brass gave it a vigorous melodic and harmonic foundation.
Barber’s early Violin Concerto, Op. 14, is even more inexplicably absent from the local concert stage. One of the great works of American music in any form, it hadn’t been heard downtown in a dozen years. This week’s performance reminds, too, that we can put away the arguments over concertmasters as concerto soloists. Robert Chen had mastered the work, which he played from memory, and let its soul carry the day without having to resort to extra emphases, schmaltz or emotional acting out. Eugene Izotov’s oboe solos were equally powerful. Petrenko’s accompaniment of the final Presto movement will likely gel in further performances.
People will debate Dmitri Shostakovich’s worth and, within his output, the ranking of his pieces as long as music is played. Many regard his Tenth Symphony, Op. 93, allegedly begun after his hearing the news of the death of the Soviet tyrant Josef Stalin, to be his finest achievement in the genre. Whatever its impetus, the nearly hourlong work has some of the composer’s most serious and compelling music as well as some of his most repetitive and obvious. The combination of Petrenko’s respect for the work of the towering composer who died a year before he was born, and the tremendous decades-long experience of the CSO players under a number of the greatest Shostakovich conductors, made for a gripping, controlled and well-paced performance. The wind solos and ensembles were consistently breathtaking but special notice must be made of bassoon David McGill and clarinet Stephen Williamson who were otherworldly in what at times seems almost a double concerto for their instruments.
Andrew Patner is critic at large for WFMT-FM (98.7).