Pablo Heras-Casado conducts Russian masterpieces review- Pianist Simon Trpčeski solos with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Pablo Heras-Casado conductor and Simon Trpčeski piano, at Symphony Center, Chicago perform Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 3; photo by Todd Rosenberg
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On February 14, 2019, in a program to be repeated February 16 and 17, Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, Principal Guest Conductor of Teatro Real in Madrid and Musical America’s 2014 Conductor of the Year, led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Macedonian classical pianist Simon Trpčeski in a potent program of stunningly executed Russian masterworks at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan, Chicago.

Conductor Pablo Heras-Casado leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and pianist Simon Trpčeski in Rachmaninov’s “Piano Concerto No. 3”; photo by Todd Rosenberg

    –  Sergei Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30, 1909

In 2009, Trpčeski recorded Rachmaninov’s 2nd and 3rd for Avie with Conductor Vasily Petrenko and the Royal London Philharmonic; it was very well received, the pianist has continued to perform/record Rachmaninov, winning much acclaim. This night, he launched the Concerto with intense emotionality, the famous “Russian hymn” theme commencing and immediately repeated by the violas. The piano phrasing then became infinitely more complex, evolving into a cadenza and a new theme. The piano enters into a dialogue with the Orchestra, the second theme sings elaborately, and the “Russian hymn” returns. Ultimately, the tempo leaps forward, and the entire Orchestra is engaged. The main cadenza is asserted, Trpčeski playing with an assured command, demonstrating a fine balance between precision and expression. Finally, both themes are re-introduced, in a thrilling performance of the most original formal design of this piece. 

The second movement Intermezzo opens with a sensitively wrought orchestral introduction presented by the CSO woodwinds and strings in turn, which is then taken over by intense solo piano playing. This segues through a vivid reappearance of the “Russian hymn” by the clarinet and bassoon, before the Intermezzo melody reenters and leads to the finale. The last movement has a number of themes, sharply rhythmic and yet expansively melodic, filled with vibrant variations on material from the first movement. 

It has been said that this pianist “was born to perform this music”. It was most exciting to watch him virtually propelled off the bench by the enormous force of his fingers and arms! The Orchestra, working alongside, produced a warm, fulfilling sound throughout that brought the piece to a solemn yet jubilant ending.


Simon Trpčeski performs Rachmaninov’s “Piano Concerto No. 3” at Symphony Center; photo by Todd Rosenberg

In Encore, Frederick Chopin Valse in A minorOp. posth.

After numerous curtain calls, the affable and verbally entertaining Trpčeski wished Chicago well, gave the audience Valentine’s Day wishes, and played this compellingly romantic and deceptively simple piece. It’s imbued with a dark, but not world-weary charm in the initial theme. A more hopeful second theme is modified into a mood of fleeting joy, before the piece concludes by a return to sadness. The sense is of a lullaby descriptive of young love, the whole a palate cleanser between the 2 giant works on the program.

       – Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 13 (Winter Dreams), 1866, 1874

The First Symphony was named “Winter Dreams” by the composer, who also named two of the symphony’s movements in the printed edition of the score; he called the first “Dreams of a Winter Journey”, the second “Desolate Land, Land of Mists.” However, while a wintry mood certainly was one evoked by the G minor Symphony- especially on such a cold night in Chicago- the slow movement is lovely and fresh, not desolate or hopeless!

Indeed, under the baton of Heras-Casado, the CSO infused a lilting freshness  throughout the entire symphony, a directness of expression from the Orchestra that is apparent from the opening theme of the Allegro tranquillo, first introduced by solo flute and bassoon, and followed by an assertive and vigorous transitional theme. 

The second movement grows from a rich, sentimental oboe solo over deliberately muted strings to a highly emotional peak with the full Orchestra, before the movement returns to the opening- almost melancholy- mood.  The scherzo gives a piquant turn, encapsulating a lilting waltz, a harbinger of Tchaikovsky’s later ballet scores. 

The finale introduces a wave of sound that takes the listener through a world of tones and colors, transformations of thematic material and melodic developments. Disarmingly, charmingly “loose” in feel, it formed a satisfying ending to this beautifully realized piece. 

Pablo Heras-Casado and Simon Trpčeski receive ovations; photo by Todd Rosenberg

Heras-Casado has been called “magnetic and vivid”. He is an exceptionally dynamic force at the podium, using strongly enunciated arm movements, seemingly put into force by the action of his entire person. The great Orchestra, fresh from a wildly successful Asian tour and at the top of it’s game, responded to the physicality, demonstrating exquisite control in meeting every challenge of the evening.

In other news, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) musicians held a press conference earlier in the day related to current contact negotiations. It was announced in a press release by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association (CSOA) that the current contract between the CSO and the CSOA has been extended to March 10, 2019 “to explore and discuss an alternative structure for comparable musician retirement benefits”. Both parties are working diligently toward a mutually beneficial agreement for sustaining Chicago’s- and the world’s- cultural gem.

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