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Mathieu Dufour steals the show in CSO’s Russian-themed program

Conductor Tugan Sokhiev

Conductor Tugan Sokhiev

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CHICAGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA


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◆ 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday

◆ Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan

◆ Tickets, $89-$220

◆ (312) 294-3000; cso.org

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Updated: March 22, 2013 7:20PM



This week’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts are unusual all the way around.

Start with a local conducting debut, a rare occurrence in the Muti era (there are none at all scheduled for next season). Then the repertoire: two atmospheric “Oriental” works from Russia and the former Soviet Union, followed by guest conductor Tugan Sokhiev’s heavily manipulated take on Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. Then, on the very positive side, the chance to hear the CSO’s superb principal flute as a soloist, although here in a work transcribed and adapted from a violin concerto.

In many ways, Dufour is the centerpiece of this program, heard Thursday at Symphony Center. Sokhiev, 35, from Ossetia in the southern-Russian Caucasus (like his mentor Valery Gergiev), is music director of the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse, Dufour’s first orchestra, and the two young men have collaborated there in recent years.

Dufour, 39, also is one of the world’s great orchestral musicians and one of the top players in the CSO’s history. His breath control, tone/timbre, depth and total musicality make him a wonder in any repertoire; his ability to move from sectional to principal to solo work always in the proper voice is astounding.

Awaiting a concerto from the Soviet-Armenian Aram Khachaturian in the 1960s, an earlier French flute legend, Jean-Pierre Rampal, grew impatient and came up with a solution approved by the broad-styled composer: He adapted Khachaturian’s popular 1940 violin showpiece for the flute, retailoring the long violin lines and wider range of the stringed instrument to suit the requirements and possibilities of the flute.

You’d think that Dufour could have gone ahead and just played the original, so assured and winning was he in this rather hokey work. (Khachaturian was a major composer for Soviet films and excerpts of his works were popular with Western directors as well.) With a middle andante movement that recalls Hollywood in the ’40s, there’s a lot of chintz in the 35-minute piece, but Dufour gave his part total magnetism and seriousness. To the audience’s good fortune, he also followed it with a masterful solo encore of Debussy’s hypnotic “Syrinx,” which was worth the whole evening’s ticket.

Sokhiev was an excellent partner and support to Dufour. But he had already showed signs in the relatively frivolous opening piece, Borodin’s 1880 “In the Steppes of Central Asia,” with its invented “Asiatic” melodies, of an attempt at personalizing and overly dramatizing this work. This isn’t consequential with Borodin (not played on a subscription concert since 1953), but it was often disturbing and disappointing in the Tchaikovsky, which has its own famous drama and logic built into it by its composer.

Stretching orchestral and solo lines like soft taffy, then breaking a piece made of arching lines and tightly woven self-references into little discrete sections for effect, Sokhiev showed that he can get what he wants from an orchestra but made no case for what he wanted. Former principal conductor Bernard Haitink, with decades on this guest, lets such a work reveal itself and disappears into the score and performance. Sokhiev has talent, but he could learn from Haitink that what ideas he might have about a masterwork should come out after many years subordinating himself to a score.

Even, or especially, with these additional demands, bassoon William Buchman, clarinet Stephen Williamson, piccolo Jennifer Gunn all distinguished themselves throughout, and flute Richard Graef and oboe Michael Henoch were stalwarts as well. Daniel Gingrich led the horns through many fine soundings of the “fate” motif in the Tchaikovsky.

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



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