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CSO’s ‘Keys to the City’ fest gets a bumpy launch

Cyrus Chestnut plays “Rhapsody Blue” Wednesday with Chicago Symphony Orchestra. | © Todd Rosenberg Photography

Cyrus Chestnut plays “Rhapsody in Blue” Wednesday with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. | © Todd Rosenberg Photography

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Updated: July 3, 2012 9:49AM

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra launched its three-week “Keys to the City” piano festival with a program Wednesday filled with bonhomie and whimsy but with decidedly mixed results.

Curators Emanuel Ax, one of America’s keyboard greats and perhaps the jolliest pianist alive, and CSO artistic vice president Martha Gilmer have been guided in part by a “more the merrier” principle in devising the festival’s near-myriad of concerts, recitals, symposia, do-it-yourself opportunities, family events and demonstrations that will fill Symphony Center through June 12.

Wednesday that emphasis meant Mozart’s 1779 E-Flat Major Concerto for Two Pianos, K. 365, stuck to its name in terms of instrumentation but featured four soloists rather than two. In brief onstage comments, Ax explained that the first piano part, written by Mozart for his gifted older sister, Nannerl, would be taken by Israeli-American Orli Shaham and that, in a contemporary bow to chivalry, three different men would play opposite her.

While this might sound gimmicky, it turned out to be an interesting and enjoyable exercise, in part because of Ax’s choice of young colleagues and the way he apportioned the concerto’s three movements. Each section either matched the temperament of the performer or found him bringing his own stamp to it. Israeli Benjamin Hochman offered an attractively brainy and rhythmically spiky opening allegro, Ax himself made subtle, soft poetry out of the slow movement, and American Orion Weiss marched joyfully through the rondo finale. Shaham was a fluid, flexible and smiling partner to all three of her artistic suitors.

A seductive improviser with classical and jazz training and an ear and touch for quiet passage work and unusual harmonies, pianist Cyrus Chestnut seemed a brilliant choice to take on George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Whether due to nervousness, poor preparation or a slip in technique, he seemed to be giving two different performances over the same quarter of an hour. His improvisatory passages showed a keen understanding of the work’s concept and of music that came before and after its landmark 1924 premiere, with moments of Chopin and bebop arising naturally in these stretches.

But in the written passages that are the bulk of the work, Chestnut repeatedly missed and mussed notes, overpedaled and had trouble getting volume out of the Steinway. (This last problem was due in part to the odd decision to use the full-sized Ferde Grofe orchestration rather than the more appropriate — for a jazz pianist — original jazz band version.) Guest conductor David Robertson was ingenious in not only doing his best to work with Chestnut’s erraticism but also in leading a wonderful performance of the orchestral side of this ever-brilliant piece.

Robertson, music director of the St. Louis Symphony and soon to add the top job at the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, framed theprogram with two orchestra-only Ravel works that also have famous piano versions, one of which, the 1919-20 “La valse,” will be heard in its two-piano version with Ax and a young colleague in a program of duo piano works next Wednesday. Opening with the 1911 “Mother Goose” Suite that Ravel drew from his 1908-10 children’s four-hand piano duet, Robertson demonstrated the focused, contemporary sense of French music he honed in his near-decade as music director of Pierre Boulez’s Ensemble InterContemporain. This was even more apparent in his taut, wholly — and appropriately — unsentimental concert-closing “La valse.”

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

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