‘Rite of Spring’ and a young piano sensation sparkle in CSO concert ablaze with surprises

11.15.12
Daniil Trifonov
Chicago On the Aisle

By Nancy Malitz

There was the ice-cracking shock of a sudden Russian spring at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall on Wednesday night, and I am not solely referring to Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” which was on the second half of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s blaze of a program conducted by Charles Dutoit.

Freshness abounded, the sublime experience of having something entirely familiar seem so new and incomprehensibly beautiful. At the center was 21-year-old Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov, who plays Tchaikovsky with the fluidity and grace of Chopin — that is, when he’s not bursting with mercurial pop.

As Trifonov made his dauntless way through Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, I was never sure what this poetic champion was going to do next, but it was a breathtaking display of technique harnessed to the mind of an exciting, original thinker.

Trifonov is a complete pianist — old school, new school, rare school. One hopes that his life unfolds in such a way that he can be a fixture for decades on the concert stage. Nice to see the audience was peopled with roughly 500 college-age students, roughly his own age, who can look forward to a splendid time of it.

It’s one thing to know that Trifonov is the latest winner of the Tchaikovsky and Arthur Rubinstein competitions. (There have been plenty of competition winners, and we have unfortunately become hardened by the experience of hearing works of phenomenal technical difficulty tossed off by 16-year-olds as if they were compulsory figures.) It’s quite another thing to be in the first stretch of a long work you know very well, and to realize that you are going to be touched in surprising ways at every turn.

Trifonov could not have been among better collaborators than Charles Dutoit and the musicians of the Chicago Symphony, who embraced the pianist’s distinctive, idiosyncratic choices with respect. They seemed delighted to go with him to the extreme edge of softness when the moment called for a particularly chimerical effect and appeared generally delighted to recognize him as one of their own.

The pianist’s performance turned a reflective mirror on the complementary work of conductor Charles Dutoit and the orchestra. The program began with Mussorgsky’s “A Night on Bald Mountain” as orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov — a staple of pops programs and symphony orchestras of every caliber, its satanic revels particularly apt around Halloween. Surely not a reason, in and of itself, to buy a ticket, I might have said.

But I would have been wrong. Here was another work that seemed surprisingly new. Dutoit, at 76, retains that robust innocence so evidenced in Trifonov — exuberance for the small things, the enchanting details, that give a whole work its momentum and impact. And of course anything Dutoit wanted the CSO to do in the way of bone-rattling effects and supernatural colors was available to him.

Listening to the CSO and Dutoit make their way through “The Rite of Spring” was a lesson of another kind. Not too many decades ago, it took months of preparation and sometimes two conductors onstage to perform this work. But in this centennial season of its premiere in 1913, musicians are completely comfortable with its once-baffling rhythmic complexities, its once-foreign sonic mix and its erotic pagan power.

One had the feeling at this riveting performance that the audience, too, had assimilated “The Rite’s” secrets and were pulling along with the musicians onstage, aware of what was coming next and eager to participate. “The Rite” still sounded shocking and new, but in the way a great performance of Beethoven’s “Eroica” does. Like its century-older counterpart, Stravinsky’s elemental work is part of all of us now, and the CSO with Dutoit tapped into the energy of that communal experience.