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Robertson and the CSO put focus on the piano

Updated: June 23, 2012 12:18AM

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s three-week Keys to the City piano festival moved in its second entry from one unusual potpourri, to another, more orchestrally driven one Thursday night.

Guest conductor David Robertson and guest curator and piano wizard Emanuel Ax were back onstage after Wednesday’s one-night festival opener; thoughthe focus was more narrow, I doubt the three pieces on this week’s subscription concerts have made up a program before.

“Keys” looks to remind audiences and players of the relationship of the piano (or pianos) to orchestral works as well; two infrequently played World War II-era compositions, Hindemith’s 1940-43 Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber and Rachmaninoff’s 1940 Symphonic Dances, op. 45, fit with this goal.

Hindemith was a political exile from his native Germany when he pulled out various early-19th century Weber works, most originally written for piano duet, and shaped them into dance-friendly orchestra versions that could work as a ballet. Parting company with choreographer Leonid Massine, Hindemith shifted his compositional focus more to musical content. Robertson brought out this aspect in a performance of great clarity. Historic performance exaggerations of the piece were abandoned and with principal flute Mathieu Dufour especially, appropriate colors were present in each of the four settings.

Rachmaninoff wrote a two piano version of his final work as well, and Ax has programmed that lighter, less-lugubrious incarnation next week. Robertson gave the work, also with balletic inspiration, in this case from Michel Fokine, its due, with a crispness that would probably have pleased the composer. Guest saxophone soloist Joe Luloff played the first movement solos with a haunting loveliness.

Ax can eat the Beethoven piano concertos for lunch. But his gentle and playful nature has him preferring to share his meal with his orchestral colleagues. In Beethoven’s 1809 E-Flat Major Concerto No. 5, the “Emperor,” he was listening to the instrumental sections, or even watching them and their score stands, as much as he was playing this cornerstone work. His spirit of inquiry and impishness had the most impact in the famous transition from the central Adagio movement to the Rondo finale and that whole spirited conclusion to the 40-minute work. As so often, Ax made this, some of the trickiest and most wonderful music ever written, seem like a piece of cake, but cake for everyone’s pleasure, not just his.

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

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