Chicago Symphony Orchestra
◆ 8 p.m. Saturday
◆ Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.
◆ Tickets, $28-$243
◆ (312) 294-3000; cso.org
Updated: May 1, 2013 3:25PM
Many classical soloists have tried their hand at conducting, with some, like Pinchas Zukerman, Daniel Barenboim and Jeffrey Kahane, making it a significant part of their ongoing musical activities.
Mitsuko Uchida is known first and foremost as a top-rank pianist, but she also conducts from the keyboard with some regularity. Indeed, she is back this weekend for performances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as soloist and conductor — the seventh season in which she has appeared in both roles since 2004-05.
An internationally esteemed Mozart interpreter, she led and played two of his piano concertos during her last concerts a year ago. This time, she is taking on two more of these works: No. 17 in G Major, K. 453, and No. 27 in B Flat Major, K. 595, a gentle, complex work that was his final, lasting statement in the form.
Uchida brings uncommon insight, unfettered directness and a kind of profound simplicity to Mozart, as she demonstrated again Thursday at Symphony Center. Displaying a deft, agile touch, she instilled an interpretative freedom and variety in her playing, while staying very much within the style and structure of the music.
High points abounded from her suitably jocund, ebullient take on the comic-opera finale in the first concerto (Mozart at his fun-loving best) to the delicate tonal colors, hushed dynamics and sense of vulnerability and emotional ambiguity that came together in the spellbinding slow movement of the second.
In her other role as conductor, Uchida was able to largely transfer these qualities into the CSO’s playing as well. While she does sometimes conduct in traditional fashion (either standing or seated at the keyboard), most of her musical direction comes not from arm gestures but from the musicians listening and responding to her as they play together. It is a kind of intimate communication that in some ways transcends what a conventional conductor can do.
The close interplay between the conductor/soloist and the orchestra was evident right from the first bars of her entrance in the opening concerto, as the woodwinds echoed the feel and texture of her phrasing and the precise dynamic in a short dialogue.
After the first concerto, stagehands took away the chairs and repositioned the stands, and it became clear that the 30 musicians (all but the cellists, of course) were going to play the second work, “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” K. 525, standing up — a surprise.
This approach was the idea of concertmaster Robert Chen, who also led rehearsals of the piece. Ensembles such as the Emerson String Quartet and Australian Chamber Orchestra regularly perform in this fashion, because it is thought to allow musicians to move and breathe more freely. In another surprise, the CSO played this work without a conductor, as some chamber orchestras do.
Unfortunately, this experiment did not pay off. The playing in this well-known serenade was ordinary compared to what came before and after, with tempos that dragged and dynamics that seemed perfunctory. But however uneven the results, it was exciting to see the orchestra try something different. Let’s hope such exploration continues.
Kyle MacMillan is a locally based free-lance writer.