Pianist and conductor outstanding in CSO debuts

Shai Wosner
Chicago Tribune

By John von Rhein

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra swept away the remaining crumbs of Pierre Boulez's 85th birthday cake Thursday night at Symphony Center and returned to business more or less as usual.

This time the spotlight was on two gifted musicians local audiences have heard in other contexts, conductor Peter Oundjian and pianist Shai Wosner. Both were making their CSO subscription series debuts and both left strong enough impressions to make one eager to hear them again at Orchestra Hall.

Music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra since 2004, the Canadian-born Oundjian has garnered admiring reviews for his conducting with most of the leading U.S. orchestras. He is perhaps best known as the former first violin of the Tokyo String Quartet, a post he held for 14 years before he was forced to abandon his violin-playing career because of focal dystonia, the same nerve disorder that afflicted pianist Leon Fleisher and former CSO principal oboist Alex Klein.

Oundjian was to be commended for rescuing Ralph Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 5 from long local neglect. The composer's reputation as a parochial English pastoralist dies hard, and at first glance this work, dating from 1943, does nothing to shatter the image. In fact, Aaron Copland was supposed to have remarked, witheringly, that listening to this symphony was like staring at a cow for 45 minutes.

But there are troubling depths to this wartime masterpiece that belie its surface calm. An Englishman by virtue of his musical training in London, Oundjian clearly admires the work. He steered the CSO through a graceful, shapely and flowing musical argument.

I wish, however, that he had looked beyond the score's serene contemplation to reveal more of its dark undertow. Whether this was the result of his interpretative choices, or the usual problem a new guest conductor has facing down the mighty CSO on but a few rehearsals, was hard to discern.

In any case the orchestra played very well for him, a fact that was most evident in the airy swirls of violins, the exceptionally tender English horn and oboe solos and the confident sweep of the passacaglia finale.

Wosner, the elegant Israeli pianist and Daniel Barenboim protege who first came to local attention in 1999, delivered a vivid, perceptive account of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor. His clearly structured opening movement, complete with rippling passage work, mirrored the restless harmonic pull of the orchestral introduction. The Romanza's serenity, broken by a stormy G-Minor interlude, was beautifully judged as well.
Completing a winning performance, Wosner played Beethoven's cadenza to the first movement and his own stylish cadenza to the Rondo finale.

Too bad Oundjian couldn't have paired the Mozart with something more appropriate than Rimsky-Korsakov's blatant, banal "Capriccio Espagnol." At least it gave various first-chair soloists a chance to strut their stuff, including John Bruce Yeh, clarinet; David Taylor, violin; Ken Olsen, cello; and Sarah Bullen, harp.