Chicago Symphony, Tilson Thomas a brilliant pair

Yefim Bronfman
Chicago Tribune

By John von Rhein

One thing that makes Michael Tilson Thomas so welcome on the Chicago Symphony Orchestra subscription series, apart from his skills at the podium, is his programming. You can depend on his concerts to be fresh, imaginatively conceived, even surprising. Such is the case with the programs he is presenting over the next two weeks at Orchestra Hall.

Most of the audience no doubt came mainly to hear Yefim Bronfman play the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1, but it listened attentively as Tilson Thomas illuminated the gnarly intricacies of Alban Berg's Three Pieces for Orchestra.

Berg's music breathes a disintegrated Romanticism. Faded remnants of Mahlerian waltzes drift in and out; shards of marches anticipate the Expressionist angst of the composer's "Wozzeck." Tilson Thomas found an internal logic to what he called, in his helpful verbal introduction, Berg's "cinematic" layering of aural images. The more wildly Berg piles on musical information, the clearer and more controlled footed the conducting seemed to become.

He prefaced the Berg with the CSO premiere of American modernist composer Ruth Crawford Seeger's Andante for Strings (1931). Crawford Seeger – the iconic folk musician Pete Seeger was her stepson – based her arrangement on a movement from her String Quartet. Its mournful lines of dissonant counterpoint built to a powerful climax before ebbing away.

Bronfman appeared to be enjoying himself immensely. Perhaps the steely strength and apparent ease he brought to Brahms' titanic duel between piano and orchestra was partly fueled by outside factors: Earlier in the day Northwestern University's Bienen School of Music announced it had awarded him its $50,000 biennial Jean Gimbel Lane Prize in Piano Performance for 2010, a prestigious honor.

I have heard more exciting performances from this pianist but few as technically solid: Those torrential double-octave runs and knotty passage work were as child's play to him. Tilson Thomas and the orchestra gave him everything he needed. The crowd went wild.

Beethoven Project Trio

What promises to be a comprehensive survey of Beethoven's oeuvre for piano trio got an auspicious launch Wednesday at the PianoForte Salon in downtown Chicago. The performers were the Beethoven Project Trio, the same Chicago-based group that gave the world and North American premieres of several rediscovered and virtually unknown Beethoven trios here last March under the auspices of the International Beethoven Project.

The trio – George Lepauw, piano; Sang Mee Lee, violin; Wendy Warner, cello -- is presenting the works chronologically in five Chicago concerts this winter and spring. Wednesday's program began with pieces by the teenaged Beethoven before moving on to the three more inspired trios that make up his Opus 1 – his first published works.

Vigor, commitment and spontaneity marked everything the trio played. I was especially pleased to hear how sharply the musicians contrasted the differences in the Opus 1 trios. The dry, close-up acoustics made the sometimes gritty string playing and Lepauw's fluent, incisive pianism all the more gripping.