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One Town that Will Never Ever Let You Down

A couple of days to visit a friend in Chicago took me to two important cultural sites that have a quasi-religious significance for residents of this city. First, we made a pilgrimage to Wrigley Field for Cubs Opening Day, for a rather chilly game against, as luck would have it, the Washington Nationals. Bill Murray was on hand, fervor ran high, but in "Cub-like fashion" (the words are from the Chicago Tribune) the hometown team gave up a win in the final inning. It was also my first chance to see Stephen Strasburg pitch for the Nats, but his performance was overshadowed by that of the Cubs starter, Ryan Dempster (pictured), whose exit coincided with the collapse of the Cubs.

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Rachmaninoff, Piano Concertos 1-4, City of Birmingham Orchestra,
N. Lugansky

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Strauss, Don Juan / Don Quixote, Chicago Symphony Orchestra,
D. Barenboim
Later that evening, we went downtown to Symphony Center to listen to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra play in Orchestra Hall, a strange venue that reminds one of nothing more than of one of those grand old cinema theaters. (The sound was quite fine in the lower balcony, with just a few balance issues from instruments on the left side of the stage.) The CSO, regarded by some as the top American orchestra, comes to Washington from time to time, most recently in 2005. After the departure of Daniel Barenboim as music director, in 2006, the ensemble went through an interim period of four years with Bernard Haitink as Principal Conductor (Pierre Boulez having also scaled back his work as Principal Guest Conductor), with much speculation about who would eventually be appointed as music director. The mantle fell on the shoulders of Riccardo Muti, who has held that position since 2010, and the sense was that this storied orchestra had "found a leader to match its stature," as Daniel Wakin put it in the New York Times.

While we would have enjoyed the chance to see Muti, who never loses his cool, this is the beginning of a two-week guest visit by another favorite conductor, Charles Dutoit. He was leading works that have a history with this most venerable of American orchestras: the CSO gave the American premiere of Richard Strauss's Don Quixote, op. 35 (not with the composer conducting, although he did conduct the CSO), and they performed Rachmaninoff's third piano concerto with the composer as soloist in 1932. It has been a Strauss-full spring so far, and this Don Quixote was a warm, jocular addition, with character-rich solo performances from CSO principal musicians as soloists, cellist John Sharp and violist Charles Pikler, who recorded the work with Barenboim back in 1991. The orchestra is a beautifully toned and balanced group, making the big tutti moments with Strauss's full orchestration thrilling, particularly the crisp precision of the brass, while some of the woodwind solo moments did not shine as strongly. The discordant bleating of the herd of sheep was particularly vivid, as were the pellucid passages of the love music, which Dutoit allowed to expand and breathe.

Other Reviews:

John von Rhein, Chicago Symphony Orchestra soloists find the soul of Strauss tone poem (Chicago Tribune, April 6)

Lawrence A. Johnson, Lugansky makes triumphant CSO debut with powerhouse Rachmaninoff (Chicago Classical Review, April 6)
After intermission came the real fire, a take-no-prisoners rendition of one of Rachmaninoff's most daring solo vehicles, with the business-like Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky in a blockbuster CSO debut. The combination of Dutoit and Lugansky in the third piano concerto was in our ears a couple years ago, with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and this had all the same pleasing qualities and more polish, as if it had been lived in a little more. The orchestra accompanied Lugansky with exceptional suavity, with Dutoit fine-tuning the rhythmic ensemble as his soloist often leaped out ahead in fast sections. Lugansky applied some poetic rubato to the slow sections, keeping always in mind that rubato means speeding up as well as slowing down, which kept one from being bored by the expected in this most overplayed concerto. The virtuosity on display was just staggering, a powerful touch in adamantine octaves and the titanic cadenza in the first movement, a sharp clarity in the guitar-like serenade near the end of the second movement, and a gossamer lightness in the ultra-fast third movement.

The Cubs and the Nationals finish out their three-game series today and tomorrow (April 7 and 8) at Wrigley Field. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra will repeat this program this evening (April 7, 8 pm) and Tuesday evening (April 10, 7:30 pm), in Chicago's Orchestra Hall.

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