Saturday, November 18, 2006

CONCERT REVIEW: 'Concerto' composers offer refreshing view of outsiders

'Concerto' composers offer refreshing view of outsiders
By Andrew Patner
Chicago Sun-Times, November 18, 2006

This week's Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts are billed as "The Art of the Concerto." But they really feature the art of the outsider.

For by plan and accident, guest conductor Paavo Jarvi is leading four 20th century works by composers who were geographically, culturally and even emotionally outside of the Austro-German traditions at the heart of most orchestral music. Each of these composers -- a Hungarian, a Jewish-American, a Pole and an Estonian -- wrote his piece to demonstrate an ability to fit into more standard forms.

The most famous "Concerto for Orchestra" is that of Bela Bartok, and justly so. The work was a summation of everything Bartok knew and felt about orchestration and structure. A valedictory, it has been one of his most performed works not least by the CSO under Reiner, Solti, Boulez and others. But Zoltan Kodaly, Bartok's Hungarian compatriot and colleague in the collecting and exploration of folk music, actually wrote such a work in 1939-40, three years before Bartok, for the 50th anniversary of the CSO. Heard rarely since its 1941 premiere, it is filled with ideas and folk references that would reach their apex in Bartok's brilliant hands.

George Gershwin wrote his Piano Concerto in F in 1925 after the runaway success of his "Rhapsody in Blue" with the specific goal of legitimating his role as a "serious" composer. Gershwin himself was the soloist in the first CSO performances at the Century of Progress in 1933, and this was the piece he played at his legendary Ravinia appearance 70 summers ago.

The CSO's soloist this week is the much-too-little-known British pianist, organ virtuoso and conductor Wayne Marshall. With technique to spare, Marshall played the concerto as a work of music rather than musical theater -- complete with his own beautifully improvised blues cadenza -- but also did so at a breakneck speed that often distracted from his obvious knowledge and sensitivity.

Witold Lutoslawski probably has the best-known and most successful post-Bartok "Concerto for Orchestra," and it brought out the best work from Jarvi in his several appearances here this year. Where Kodaly anticipated the master of the form, Lutoslawski consciously pays him homage with this demanding but wholly rewarding virtuosic showcase written between 1950 and 1954.

Several players suggested to me that this piece should join the orchestra's touring repertoire, so well does it allow the CSO to show its myriad abilities, and they are absolutely right.

The newest work on the program, the 1992 "Zeitraum" ("Time Space") by Jarvi's Estonian contemporary Erkki-Sven Tuur, played with dual ideas of time -- static and progressive -- in a 15-minute span. It was much more appealing than one might have expected and no less interesting than the work of Estonia's leading composer, the often overrated Arvo Part.

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

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