Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune
A sense of surprise drives the best music soirees, and there was plenty of it to go around Wednesday night at Symphony Center for the opening of the Keys to the City Piano Festival.
Some of the unexpected moments, however, were more welcome than others.
Pianist Emanuel Ax, curator of the fest, presided over one of the best, during Mozart's Concerto for Two Pianos, K. 365. Technically speaking, the piece requires but two pianists and one orchestra. So why were four soloists on stage?
Ax puckishly explained to the large audience that several artists wished to have a chance to duet with Orli Shaham, so a different pianist played opposite her during each of three movements. If this disturbed the continuity of the piece, it certainly added a whimsical note to the proceedings, the quartet of pianists playing musical chairs between movements, suggesting a high-toned version of the Marx Brothers. Chicago Symphony Orchestra guest conductor David Robertson (who's married to Shaham) effectively side-stepped the traffic jam.
More important, the unexpected, round-robin pianism gave listeners a range of music-making to savor - or not.
Certainly it was no wonder why everyone wanted to partner Shaham, for she showed herself to be a first-rate Mozartean, combining a crisp keyboard touch with an uncommonly nuanced approach to tone and phrase. Her solos proved consistently well-crafted and engaging, her accompanying passages a sparkling counterpoint to the orchestral statements.
No pianist played opposite her more effectively than Orion Weiss, whose work in the final movement epitomized sensitivity and poise, notwithstanding the brisk tempo conductor Robertson established. Weiss answered Shaham's delicacy with a hushed pianism of his own, though he still brought ample tonal weight to every passing note.
Pianist Ax, a poet at the piano, came closest to Weiss' high polish, producing nearly seamless lyric exchanges with Shaham and a signature romanticism of phrase - albeit within the outer reaches of classical style.
Unfortunately, pianist Benjamin Hochman (substituting for Dong-Hyek Lim, who was absent due to a scheduling conflict), sounded surprisingly dull in the opening movement. His mostly heavy-handed pianism, largely lacking in tonal inflection, did not fare well next to Shaham's, giving the concerto a lopsided start.
For piano-philes, the other main attraction of the evening was George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," played not by a classical artist but by one of the best of the under-50 jazz pianists, Cyrus Chestnut. The man has turned in many impressive, authoritative performances at the Jazz Showcase and elsewhere in Chicago over the years, but this was not one of them.
Chestnut's surprisingly messy fingerwork, halting solos, wrong notes and tenuous overall grip on the piece were not acceptable alongside this great orchestra. Yes, Chestnut intentionally ventured away from the score to improvise some passages, as one expected him to do. His occasional chord substitutions and alternate themes piqued the ear and underscored the inherent flexibility of the "Rhapsody."
But when Chestnut played Gershwin's manuscript as written, the pianist badly over-pedaled some passages and struggled technically in others. He fumbled the notoriously difficult coda when trying to play it Gershwin's way and revamped most of the rest with a wash of sound that drained the finale of its rhythmic drive.
In retrospect, Symphony Center would have done much better to have engaged pianists Kevin Cole, Marcus Roberts or Anthony Molinaro, each of whom has created a masterful, deeply personalized version of the "Rhapsody." Maybe next time.