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Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Ravinia Festival, July 16

True collaboration is one of the mysteries of music. It is not the same as mere accompaniment. Mere accompaniment is what singers generally encounter at auditions, where they hand their music over to an unknown pianist and say a silent prayer that their markings will be observed; there's nothing quite like pausing for a cadenza in the final bars of an aria only to have the accompanist plunge ahead to the end, heedless of scribbled notations and oversize fermatas delineated in red pencil.

It is also not the same thing as just playing together. Just playing together is what happens at pickup gigs like weddings and Christmas Eve services, when groups of singers and instrumentalists are thrown together with only a little bit of rehearsal. The results are usually thoroughly professional and acceptable but seldom approach any ideal of music making. Just playing together is what usually happens in youth orchestras, amateur groups, and choruses in which the personnel change every year. Every member is so involved in making sure that the right notes come out, and come out sounding reasonably good, that he or she has little energy to spare for listening to the rest of the musicians in the way that's needed for true collaboration.

True collaboration is usually the result of years of working together in close proximity. It's found most often in chamber groups--whose members are sometimes better acquainted with the mental and emotional workings of their colleagues than those of their own spouses. It's also found in great orchestras and choruses, particularly when they've had the guidance of outstanding conductors and chorus masters, and when the core group has rehearsed and performed together over a long period: continuity is important.

Much more rarely do we find true collaboration in a one-shot concert, yet it happened at the Ravinia Festival on Sunday night, when pianist Dmitri Alexeev joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and guest conductor Semyon Bychkov in a performance of Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. It was almost enough to make one credit the idea of telepathy.

Some soloists seem to regard themselves as the sole arbiters of what must happen musically: they perform what they perform the way they perform it, period. They never look at the conductor or the members of the orchestra, and some go so far as to stand or sit where they can't see the conductor, thus forcing everyone else in the ensemble to follow their whims. Others take a businesslike "a gig's a gig" approach; they work with the conductor and orchestra to do their job of playing or singing. The results are often more than satisfactory, but seldom do such soloists create the musical magic that sweeps us out of our seats.

Rarest of all is the soloist who is as intensely tuned in to everyone else onstage as to himself or herself. Dmitri Alexeev is such a one. A slight, shaggy figure, he is not only technically superb but thoughtful. Jaw jutting, bouncing slightly, almost lost in his white jacket, he hunches over and descends on the keyboard in powerful bursts that belie his small stature. Here is someone who has really thought out what he wants to do with the music, and accomplishes it with understanding and verve.

This piece, composed in 1934, remains one of Rachmaninoff's most popular works. Based on a melody by the fiendishly gifted violinist-composer Paganini, it cleverly rings the changes on his Violin Caprice No. 2 in A Minor, exploiting all its potential tunes, feelings, and dynamics. Alexeev explored them carefully, showing off the virtuosic side of the music without ever lapsing into vulgarity. He was also a true colleague to Bychkov and the CSO. Where some soloists practically do their nails while waiting for their next measures of glory, Alexeev was listening every moment, missing nothing that the orchestra played.

The program notes gave no indication whether Russian compatriots Alexeev and Bychkov have worked together in the past; if not, their musical understanding of each other was nothing short of extraordinary. On Saturday evening Bychkov and the CSO had worked well together, but without the rapport they displayed on Sunday; maybe the intervening 24 hours--and the extra experience of working together-- made things slide into place, maybe it was just serendipity. Maybe the collaboration with Alexeev was inspiring. Whatever it was, everyone was in the same groove. For once, the obligatory standing ovation at Ravinia was justified.

The concert opener was Dutilleux's Metaboles, a 1964 work in five movements, performed without breaks. Many listeners justifiably approach works composed in the last 50 years with a certain caution, since so many of them seem to be pointless, wallowing in ugliness for its own sake. Still, the ultimate test of any composition is the question Would I want to hear this again? Metaboles passes. It opens in a manner reminiscent of The Rite of Spring, evoking Stravinsky in other places as well. There's a great deal of jazz flavoring and some stunning use of percussion; the unifying rhythms build to a mighty crescendo that doesn't seem forced or artificial.

The evening's second half was Brahms's Symphony No. 4 in E Minor. Depending on how Brahms is played, his music can seem intensely profound or monumentally pompous. The symbiosis between Bychkov and the CSO virtually guaranteed profundity. Bychkov had thought out the tempi and emphases well, and the CSO responded with some of its best playing this summer.


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