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CHICAGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

This week and next, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is drawing a historical parallel--something it rarely does--by presenting the local premiere of Arvo Part's Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten alongside Britten's own tribute to an older master, Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. In a way, these two works chart the rise and fall of modernism. Britten's 1937 work bade adieu to Elgar-esque hymnal lyricism and ushered in an energetic, prismatic one, filtered through Berg and Schoenberg. By the time Part composed Cantus, one year after Britten's death in 1976, he'd forsaken his aesthetic roots in the logical extremities of the Second Viennese School in favor of a quasi-medieval mysticism he refers to as tintinnabulation. Detractors tend to see Part's minimalism as too simplistic and popular to be considered seriously, but Cantus, built of only descending scales and the mournful toll of a bell, is reverential and affecting. (ECM includes a wonderful performance of it by the Stuttgart State Orchestra on the Part anthology Tabula Rasa.) Other than in the luxuriant string sound, Part doesn't make any explicit reference to Britten's music, but Britten's Variations, also scored for string orchestra, clearly quotes--and one-ups--his mentor Bridge. Britten was barely 24 when he wrote the work, but it's assured and daring. The CSO will be conducted by Donald Runnicles, a renowned Britten specialist who's been the head of the San Francisco Opera since 1992. The program also includes Haydn's Cello Concerto in D; the soloist will be John Sharp, the CSO's principal cellist and one of the finest working in an orchestra today. Wednesday, 7:30 PM, Thursday, 8 PM, next Friday, April 17, 1:30 PM, next Saturday, April 18, 8 PM, and next Tuesday, April 21, 7:30 PM, Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan; 312-294-3000. TED SHEN

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Donald Runnicles photo by Lisa Kohler; John Sharp photo-uncredited.

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