Symphony Center was filled with the sounds of cinematic drama Thursday evening as regular guest conductor Charles Dutoit led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in two turn-of-the-century standards.
In expanding his catalogue of tone poems, Richard Strauss gave the cello repertoire a character of great ambition, flair, and depth in Don Quixote. One of the dozens of re-imagined portrayals of Cervantes’s hapless hero, Strauss’s version is played by a solo cello—in this case, CSO principal cellist John Sharp. Sharp set the Don out on his journey in earnest and confidence with his trusty sidekick, Sancho Panza—a perky, anxious foil played by principal violist Charles Pikler. With visions of the beautiful lady Dulcinea in their heads, Quixote and Sancho seek to defeat the great foes of the world, but end up fighting losing battles against windmills, a flock of bleating sheep, and Benedictine monks. Along the way, Strauss gives the cello broad melodies in which Quixote ponders lofty ideas of heroism and chivalry; Sharp lent his ringing tone to such ruminations most notably in the solo passages. Concertmaster Robert Chen joined Sharp and Pikler periodically to form a charming trio. Quixote’s final scene has the defeated hero soaring to the heights of the cello only to grow frail, gasping at his last words before cello dies on a deathbed of orchestral accompaniment. Sharp and Pikler were given extended cheers from an audience that always revels in the hometown soloists.
No less dramatic was the program’s second work, Sergei Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3, a favorite of virtuosic pianists and audiences alike. In his debut with the CSO Thursday, Russian Nikolai Lugansky stepped into the long history of this piece at Orchestra Hall—the CSO’s first performance featured the composer as soloist—and his performance left audience members murmuring in amazement. Lugansky’s playing blended with the orchestra as Rachmaninov’s melodies melted together. The hall’s dry acoustics dampened the low, rolling piano passages early on, but proved gentle on the soloist’s treatment of the sweet melodies in the upper reaches of the keyboard. Dutoit held the orchestra at bay while striking a balance of forward motion. Lugansky whipped off the treacherous cadenzas that would leave lesser pianist’s fingers in knots, displaying ease, dexterity, and grace.
Michael Henoch’s oboe solo and swells from the viola section marked the opening of the middle Adagio section. Lugansky showed his ability to be his own accompanist, pulling melodies from swirling piano harmonies. The Adagio is short and sweet, and Rachmaninov gets to the very serious business of a grand finale. Lugansky’s tone sparkled in the piano’s stratosphere; his clarity of rapid-fire notes mirrored snare rolls from Cynthia Yeh. The big swoon finally arrived at the end as Dutoit’s austere conducting gave way to an orchestra at full volume, once again demonstrating that it is a great Rachmaninov orchestra.
Lugansky’s is not the muscular sound one often associates with the Russian style; rather, he strikes a balance between the thunderous and the finesse. He found the personality in the concerto beneath the powerhouse showpiece, using his solid technique to display a strong sense of emotional depth, basking as much in the playful and delicate passages as in the stormy glory of pounding out towering chords. Here’s hoping he has made the first of many appearances here.