Nicola Benedetti with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Photo Credit: Todd Rosenberg)
Tilson Thomas rekindles Russian masterpieces
By Howard Reich
The Chicago Tribune
December 14, 2018
Performing Russian repertoire with virtuosity and fire comes naturally to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as the ensemble reaffirmed Thursday night in Orchestra Hall.
But under the baton of guest conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, most of this all-Russian program held something more: depth of sound and intimacy of expression, elements not always encountered when epics by Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev are involved.
The first of the evening’s two high points came with Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2, featuring Nicola Benedetti as soloist. Chicago listeners already were familiar with Benedetti’s agile technique and purity of sound from her 2016 performance at the Ravinia Festival, where she played the U.S. premiere of Wynton Marsalis’ Concerto in D (written for her). On that occasion, Benedetti captured both the populist spirit of the work and its jazz undertow.
But the Prokofiev Concerto is another matter entirely, its technical passages fiendishly difficult, its rhythmic momentum often bordering on hysteria, its melodic flow practically operatic (particularly in the middle movement). This concerto, in other words, demands heightened degrees of bravura showmanship and fervent poetry, all expressed on the enormous scale one expects of Russian orchestral music in general, Prokofiev’s in particular.
From the solo passage that opens the work, Benedetti established that this was going to be an intensely lyrical, delicately nuanced reading. Her tonal inflections and gentle hints of rubato brought the work down to human scale, while the sweetness of her timbre and soaring character of her high-register lines suggested a sensuousness not generally associated with Prokofiev. Tilson Thomas provided an empathetic orchestral backdrop, giving Benedetti ample space in which to take the expressive liberties she sought.
The violinist made a reverie of the second movement and showed plenty of rhythmic swagger in the third, especially during its perpetual-motion finale, soloist and orchestra coming together in an orgy of rhythmic tension and release.