CSO review: A bracing evening of Gershwin, Ravel and Stravinsky

by Howard Reich, CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Any concert featuring three giants of early 20th century modernism – Ravel, Gershwin and Stravinsky – poses considerable technical and interpretive challenges to the musicians involved. All the more when the scheduled conductor, Lionel Bringuier, cancels due to illness, leaving a substitute to rush in and take on the repertory as planned.

Even though Bringuier had programmed major works long in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s repertory, one had to admire the finesse and flair conductor Andrew Litton brought to them Saturday night at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park.

Litton has positioned himself as a champion of -- and an authority on -- music of Gershwin, and he affirmed these credentials during the concert’s second half.

He opened it with Gershwin’s “Cuban Overture,” a tone poem reminiscent of the composer’s “An American in Paris,” albeit with an artistic focus on a city far south of France: Havana. The “Cuban Overture” never has enjoyed the popularity of “An American in Paris,” but, then again, it never benefited from a landmark Hollywood film starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron.

Whether the “Cuban Overture” is the equal of “An American Paris” is open to debate, but conductor Litton made a compelling case for the piece, giving it a sweeping narrative arc. His sensitivity to the work’s objectives was apparent from the outset, Litton taking an aptly brisk tempo and conveying a delightful rhythmic bounce. When major lyric themes emerged, Litton elicited unmistakable ardor and poetically shaped phrases from the strings.

He also crisply articulated the work’s structural underpinnings, making clear how themes emerged, evolved and resurfaced. The crispness with which the orchestra articulated the contrapuntal passages and the grandeur of climactic sections pointed to a conductor who valued every measure of this music. This was a “Cuban Overture” that was fully lived.

Gershwin’s Concerto in F remains one of the most beloved of American piano concertos, not least because of its inclusion in the aforementioned film “An American in Paris.” And though no one has matched the ferocity of Oscar Levant’s performance of the concerto in that movie and on record, pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet offered a compelling performance, with some aesthetic flaws.

Once again, conductor Litton chose well in beginning the piece vigorously, reflecting Gershwin’s tendency toward speedy tempos (as both composer and pianist). When Thibaudet played the concerto’s first solo, there was no mistaking the sensitivity of his reading, nor his understanding of the score’s blues-based melancholy. Thibaudet achieved admirable technical accuracy, but the movement’s virtuoso sections needed more edge and rhythmic aggression than Thibaudet provided.

There was much to admire in the slow movement, Thibaudet offering a delicacy of expression not easily attained in an outdoor setting. His shimmering tonal palette illuminated how much Gershwin admired French Impressionism in general, music of Ravel in particular. And dialogues between Thibaudet and members of the CSO evoked the intimacies of chamber music.

Alas, Thibaudet took too moderate a tempo and produced too light a touch to capture the thrill of the final movement. Though he managed fistfuls of notes, itself a significant feat, he did not capture this movement’s urgency and near-hysteria.

Litton fared better on his own, conjuring brilliant colors in the opening sections of Stravinsky’s “The Firebird” Suite (1919 version) and tremendous momentum and sonic shock in the “Infernal Dance of King Kashchei” movement. The dark-hued Russian romanticism he tapped in the “Lullaby” and the bloom of orchestral sonority in the “Finale” were worth savoring.

The program opened with Ravel’s “Mother Goose” Suite, in which Litton reminded listeners how subtlety of timbre and gesture can benefit this score.