Chicago Philharmonic Society BEYOND THE BLACK SEA Review – Concert of Russian Masterpieces

On an unseasonably, if somewhat fittingly, cold April day, those of us who’ve made our way to the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts are here for a celebration of beloved Russian masterworks. Joining the Chicago Philharmonic today is celebrated pianist Xiayin Yang.

Chicago Philharmonic Photo: Elliot Mandel

The Chicago Philharmonic Transports Us Beyond The Black Sea

The concert opens with an arrangement of The Secret Agent by Philip Glass; a piece written for the 1996 film of the same name. In the film, Glass’s composition provides an atmospheric backdrop for a mysterious tale of espionage and intrigue. For this writer, however, the piece’s repetitive motifs fail to stir the blood in quite the same way in a concert setting, despite their skilful and considered handling by the orchestra.

The first of the true Russian masterworks presented is Tchaikovsky's Symphony No 5 in E minor. Composed in 1888, the piece grapples with ideas of destiny and predestination; topics that preoccupied the composer at the time. Indeed, a reoccurring "Fate Theme" is introduced at various points throughout the piece, ensuring that the steady march of fate is never far from our minds.

Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra Photo: Elliot Mandel

Despite the weight of the subject matter from which the composer drew inspiration, this music retains all of the boundless romanticism that encapsulates Tchaikovsky at his best. The 5th Symphony is tempestuous - at times verging on melodramatic - and the orchestra handles each sweeping gesture with aplomb. Their playing is precise, articulate, and possesses a genuine clarity of thought. Every change of character and direction is maneuvered seamlessly, and they possess an elasticity as a unit that is rare in an ensemble of this size. Each peak is stretched and stretched, almost to breaking point, before we are sent tumbling over the apex; careening along the next wave of symphonic sound.

By the time the symphony reaches its conclusion, the "Fate Theme" is transformed. What was once a funereal trudge has become a triumphant march. Tchaikovsky, it seems, has battled his demons and is, at least for now, the master of his own destiny.

Following a brief intermission, the orchestra is joined onstage by pianist Xiayin Wang for Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor. Written after a prolonged period of writer’s block, this work marked a triumphant return for an artist racked by self-doubt and depression. A deeply romantic work, it contains all of the rich textures and expansive melodies for which Rachmaninoff is known.

Wang brings all of the dazzling virtuosity that one expects from a pianist of her stature, but it is the refinement and composure of her playing that leaves a lasting impression. These qualities are particularly evident in the muted opening of the second movement. Her playing is hushed, as if heard from a great distance, but bears a weight that feels almost physical. She draws us in; each note rendered with exquisite care. This is music-making at its best, and briefly, a thousand seat concert hall is made to feel intimate, almost confidential.

Xiayin Wang Photo: Elliot Mandel
Xiayin Wang Photo: Elliot Mandel

The Chicago Philharmonic Society is a collaboration of over 200 of the highest-level classical musicians performing in the Chicago metropolitan area. To find out more about upcoming concerts and events, visit the Chicago Philharmonic website.


All photos by Elliot Mandel. 

Donal O'Shea Photo: Áine Collins

About the Author

Donal O'Shea is a musician and writer from Ireland. He received his Bachelor of Music degree from the Cork School of Music in 2016. Currently living in Chicago, Donal spends his time playing music, watching and playing sports, reading, writing, and exploring Chicago's restaurants and bars.

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