Vasily Petrenko proves he's the real deal in debut with CSO

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra does a thorough job bringing to local attention gifted young conductors who are creating a stir in the podium world. The latest to make his debut on the subscription series is Vasily Petrenko, the 36-year-old chief conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, and soon-to-be chief conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra.

His impressive showing with the orchestra Thursday night at Symphony Center validated the glowing reports coming out of England of the revitalizing effect he has had on the Liverpool orchestra. Listeners on this side of the pond are getting further evidence of Petrenko's interpretive stature by the excellent Shostakovich and Rachmaninov symphonic cycles he is recording with that ensemble. In fact, his weekend CSO programs have as their main item Dmitri Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony, one of the highlights of his cycle for Naxos.

Slim and boyish-looking, Petrenko is tall enough to play center with the Chicago Bulls, should he ever wish to give up his day job. Which doesn't seem likely, given the vigorous and fluid command the Russian conductor exhibited on Thursday.

His beat is clear and he has a knack for focusing on the essentials, his long fingers fluttering in a highly expressive manner he seems to have inherited from his mentor, Yuri Temirkanov, back home in St. Petersburg. He inspired the orchestra to go well beyond its normal megawatt virtuosity, and this made for a blistering account of the Shostakovich. Here is a valuable guest conductor CSO deserves to have around on a regular basis.

Shostakovich began laying out his Symphony No. 10 before Joseph Stalin's death in 1953, but the demise of his hated nemesis spurred its completion later that year. He reportedly said the work was a portrait of the brutality and fear that gripped Russia during the Stalin years. Perhaps nowhere else in his symphonic output does the composer walk a finer line between public monumentality and bitter introspection, and Petrenko balanced these bipolar aspects brilliantly.

He built the brooding melancholy of the first movement slowly and purposefully, scaling each climax so it registered even more intensely than the one before. At times one felt a certain loss of momentum that was not the case with his more steadily paced Liverpool recording of the Tenth, but no matter: The sound he got from the orchestra was very Russian, dark and glowering and even a bit raw, nowhere more so than in the unrelenting fury of the second movement.

Petrenko treated the withdrawn Allegretto with great subtlety, bringing an ominous stillness to the horn calls (for which Dan Gingrich doubled Dale Clevenger's solo lines) that repeatedly sound the composer's "DSCH" monogram. Seldom has the trajectory to the hollow triumph of the final pages been more exactingly plotted, or more excitingly conveyed. The orchestra gave Petrenko everything he asked for, and more. Trombones, trumpets and percussion came through splendidly, and there were fine woodwind solos all around.

The keen ear for instrumental niceties Petrenko brought to the Shostakovich also was apparent in the accommodating support he gave Robert Chen's beautifully poised account of Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto.

The CSO concertmaster sang the tunes with a full-blooded but never cloying tone that went straight to the beating heart of the composer's unabashed romanticism. Eugene Izotov took the achingly beautiful oboe solo that opens the slow movement as if in a single breath – remarkably so, considering that Petrenko – no speed demon, he – treated the andante marking as if it were lento. The perpetual-motion finale was light and scampering, with nary a hair out of place. Chen's reading won the roaring endorsement of the audience and his CSO colleagues.

Petrenko began the program by displaying his British bona fides with Edward Elgar's "Cockaigne" Overture ("In London Town"), a work not played at these concerts, amazingly enough, for 67 years. He ably conveyed the roast-beefy jollity of the fast sections, with their boisterous trombones, even if his deliberate broadening of the tempo for the slow, contrasting tune threatened to mire the music in stasis.

The program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; $27-$208; 312-294-3000,


Russian music of more recent vintage than the Shostakovich gave the season's second CSO MusicNOW concert earlier in the week at the Harris Theater its particular gravitas.

This was the U.S. premiere of one of Sofia Gubaidulina's latest compositions, her "Labyrinth" for 12 cellos. Written for the cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic and first heard at last summer's Lucerne Festival, the score takes as its starting point the brooding intensity of the composer's great forebear, Shostakovich. Gubaidulina treats the dozen cellos en masse as well as in subdivisions, creating powerful sonorities that evoke Orthodox church ritual. But the score abounds in other striking episodes, such as one in which three cellists play rapid ascending scales in plucked chords. The music touches on deep spiritual mysteries but, as is often the case with Gubaidulina, allows them to remain mysterious.

For this performance, six members of the CSO cello section were joined by six guest cellists under Cliff Colnot's typically adroit direction. They made a magnificent tour de force of the piece. Nothing on the remainder of the program – which held works by Steven Bryant, Zosha di Castri and CSO resident composer Mason Bates – grabbed one with comparable force, although every performance spoke eloquently of the musicians' skill at navigating the knottiest of textures. The large, attentive audience rewarded the players and composers with cheers.

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