Kissin rides a Russian warhorse to glory with CSO

Sir Andrew Davis
Chicago Tribune

American symphony orchestras are always searching for creative strategies to counter the steady decline of concertgoers who buy their tickets by subscription. But one traditional means of ensuring a rush to the box office never seems to grow old, and that is engaging a charismatic and hugely gifted soloist. If there are far fewer such artists to go around than there once were, the formula remains eminently viable.

The spirit of Tchaikovsky was very much present for the first half of the program. Davis offered the Divertimento from Stravinsky's "The Fairy's Kiss," the 1928 ballet score based on little-known piano pieces and songs by Tchaikovsky. (One such piece was the "Natha Waltz" Kissin included in his marathon of encores.) The 1934 suite Stravinsky drew from the complete score omits the final scene and makes trims throughout.

Davis evinced great affection and musical understanding for the score, bringing nice balletic lift to the rhythms, clarity to its enameled textures and abundant charm to everything else. You could easily visualize dancers disporting themselves to this light and graceful reading, although how many ballet companies have orchestras as brilliant as the CSO to animate Stravinsky's music?

The woodwind choir — including guest principal flute Mark Sparks (of the St. Louis Symphony) and former eighth blackbird flutist Tim Munro — made particularly distinctive contributions; so did assistant principal cello Kenneth Olsen.

The concert began with Davis' own orchestral arrangement of J.S. Bach's mighty Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, originally written for organ. The CSO has played various other transcriptions of this piece over the years (including better-known ones by Frederick Stock, Leopold Stokowski and Ottorino Respighi), but this was its first performance of the Davis version.

And a most effective arrangement it is, too, one that displays Bach's contrapuntal mastery and structural logic through clearly delineated shifts of orchestral color, along with many subtleties of scoring. Davis, who began his musical education as an organ scholar at England's King's College, Cambridge, combined his knowledge of the organ and familiarity with the workings of the modern symphony orchestra in a most ingenious way. One was happy to discover the piece in so deft a performance as this. 

Read the rest of the review here