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January 13, 2004

Cinderella joins Rachmaninoff for classical fun

"There always is a reason when a work languishes in utter neglect."

While this knowing comment happens to have spewed from the pen of a former Chicago Women's Symphony Association president in 1949, the sentiment behind it is common enough across the arts and the generations in America. With the exception of those indie rock fans to whom recognition by the "mainstream" is a sure sign of the absence of artistic integrity and merit, most audiences are comforted by the thought that the works they confront have survived some sort of selective process and have stood the tests of time.

There are two types of audience members at a concert. The first type of audience member believes that everything put before him. He is good because, if it weren't, it never would have been put before him and is certainly not the ideal listener. His critical laziness, however, is at least less harmful than that of the person who believes that everything not put before him is bad because if it weren't it would have been put before him. Mrs. John V. Spachner, author of the quote above, suffers from this latter, more pernicious sort of laziness. Thankfully, she was not in charge of programming last Friday night's concert, for if she had been we would not have been treated to the first-ever performance of Prokofiev's Cinderella at a Chicago Symphony Orchestra subscription concert.

Due to the absence of dancers, conductor Sir Andrew Davis prefaced each selection from the ballet with his own narration describing the characters and events depicted by the music. Davis seemed most keen on describing the "ugly sisters," and he put their character flaws into rhyming verse. The musical highlight was certainly the ball at which the guests dance to a demonic waltz. The waltz is interrupted by the overpowering strokes of midnight from the percussion, low brass, and basses. The dark atmosphere typical of Prokofiev permeated the selections, as did a danceable liveliness.

Cinderella was preceded on the program by the world premiere of Stephen Jones's at the exactest point. Though expertly executed by the orchestra, at the exactest point suffers from overzealous percussion writing. The principal second violinist shone in his uncommonly prominent solos. Jones's orchestration of at the exactest point was egalitarian, giving all elements of the orchestra a thorough work-out. Though the work ably demonstrated the ability of the symphony to function as if it were a single instrument, it lacked a certain variation in timbre, and, as a result, suffered overall.

The concert concluded with Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor. In the first half of the twentieth century, when Rachmaninov was touring America as a piano soloist performing his own compositions, critics deemed his work as being destined to languish in utter neglect. The prediction seems ludicrous today when Rachmaninov's concertos are concert favorites. The hauntingly lyrical piano melody that opens the concerto was the tune one left the concert humming, and which would likely be found creeping into one's thoughts for days afterward. Piano soloist Louis Lorte's rhapsodic playing made it seem as if he invented the music as he went along. The precision with which the soloist meshed with the orchestra, however, left no doubt that such spontaneity was an illusion. The excellent communication between Lorte and Davis enabled them to pull off daring changes in tempo for an exciting performance. The flourish with which the concerto ended brought the audience immediately to its feet.