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Graceful soloist drives CSO

Pianist Garrick Ohlsson. Phoby Pier AndreMorolli

Pianist Garrick Ohlsson. Photo by Pier Andrea Morolli

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chicago symphony orchestra


When: 8 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan

Tickets: $28-$215

Info: (312) 294-3000;

Updated: March 18, 2013 6:44AM

It’s been barely a week since the Chicago Symphony Orchestra wrapped up its Far Eastern tour. Maybe some musicians onstage Friday night for the orchestra’s first concert at Symphony Center since returning home were still fighting jet lag. If so, they hid it well. Led by the frequent — and always welcome — guest conductor Sir Mark Elder, the concert of works by Dvorak, Rachmaninoff and Sibelius was full of color, fire and technical polish.

For some in the audience, the main event probably was Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with Garrick Ohlsson as the indefatigable soloist. Ohlsson can be a powerhouse pianist, and, when appropriate, he thundered and raced through Rachmaninoff’s fiendishly difficult concerto with effortless aplomb. But more impressive than his virtuoso pyrotechnics was the sense of heartfelt soul that he brought to the piece.

Rachmaninoff is a master of melody, and his music is full of tunes — tender, jaunty, soaring — that anyone can whistle. But Ohlsson, abetted by an equally sensitive CSO, dug far below that attractive melodic surface. In the concerto’s quieter moments, he allowed Rachmaninoff’s melodies to blossom and expand. There was no exaggerated lingering over a dulcet phrase or showy shifts in rhythm. We didn’t doubt for a minute that Ohlsson could have dazzled us with even fancier finger work had he so desired. But aided by Elder’s sensitive baton, he and the CSO brought a sense of serenity and unhurried grace to a concerto that all too often becomes merely a showcase for flashy technical display.

That sense of allowing the soul of a piece to emerge also was apparent in Sibelius’ Symphony No. 1, which closed the concert. Sibelius was already Finland’s leading composer in 1898 when he wrote his first symphony, and his music portrays a landscape of dense forests and brief glimpses of sunlight. Once again, Sir Mark shaped the symphony with a knowing hand. The alternations between brooding darkness and fleeting hope were seamless and expressive.

Sir Mark has conducted a wide range of repertoire in his frequent visits to the CSO — Elgar and Delius, and last November and December, Berlioz and Shostakovich. But in 2009 he led the CSO’s exuberant three-week Dvorak Festival, and his Symphony Center concerts last fall included Dvorak’s rarely performed tone poem, “The Golden Spinning Wheel.”

On Friday he and the CSO followed up with “The Water Goblin,” another Dvorak tone poem composed in conjunction with “The Golden Spinning Wheel.” Its intricately woven, folk-flavored colors ranged from John Bruce Yeh’s hearty clarinet solos to mournful songs for trombones and tubas. The CSO strings added their own robust, flexible voice to the musical drama.

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