Review: CSO Celebrates Rachmaninoff With Conductor Lahav Shani and Pianist Beatrice Rana Making Debuts

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra kicked off its weekend celebration of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s 150th birthday in a fantastic fashion at Symphony Center on Thursday night. In his CSO conducting debut, Lahav Shani led the orchestra through two great works by this 20th century Russian master.

With pianist Beatrice Rana making her CSO debut at the Steinway, the concert’s first half included my favorite Rachmaninoff composition, Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, Op. 43. The second half featured Rachmaninoff’s last completed work, the Symphonic Dances, Op, 45.

Opening the show was the Classical Symphony by another Russian Sergei, this one being Prokofiev. His Symphony No 1 in D-Major, Op. 25, is a modern take on a musical form popular 125 years previously. Its four movements provide a fascinating juxtaposition of new tonal approaches to an old form. It always leaves me wistful that there are not more examples of this.

Lahav Shani. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Conducting with his hands without score, Shani showed himself to be a force from the opening measures. While he seemed to sway with the music, in reality the music swayed to him. It’s an enjoyable visual effect. He also showed deftness in blending the orchestra’s various sections. In several places, Prokofiev gave prominence to the winds, and Shani brought it all out in a very balanced way.  

After a quick set change where a piano was elevated to the stage, the Rhapsody came forth. Several composers before Rachmaninoff used the theme from Nicolò Paganini’s 24th Caprice for solo violin. Most notably Johannes Brahms used it in a set of variations for piano solo in Op. 35. While Rachmaninoff’s version shares some similarities with Brahms’, it is different in several respects. First, it explores a subsidiary theme, the Gregorian Dies Irae melody from the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass. As such, this piece is not a set of variations in the strictest sense.

Beatrice Rana and Lahav Shani, Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

More significantly, however, Rachmaninoff inverted Paganini’s theme by turning it upside down. It’s as if a mirror is held over a line of notes and what’s in the mirror gets played; when an original musical line goes up, in the inversion it goes down. In doing this, Rachmaninoff discovered a melody of startling grace and beauty. The resulting 18th variation Andante cantabile is a delightful contrast to the rest of the work. It takes Rhapsody on the Theme by Paganini to a whole new dimension. It is also the tune from this work that gets heard frequently.

Of course, being a concerto by Rachmaninoff, the Rhapsody places huge demands on the pianist. This piece requires more delicacy than pomposity. Beatrice Rana’s fingers made it sound like velvet. Her fingering through the runs and the force she applied in the octave passages was like magic.

While Rana was working wonders, Shani was calling on the orchestra expanded with lots of percussion and additional wind and brass. The contrasts he was able to produce and the transitions into the different sections added to the feel. Especially wonderful were the two variations leading up to the Andante cantabile, which was so beautifully played, I could hardly hold back tears.

After an extremely well deserved standing ovation, Rana and Shani returned to the piano for a four-hand version of Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from the Nutcracker ballet. It was delightful.

Lahav Shani. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Following intermission, Shani led the orchestra through a rousing rendition of Symphonic Dances. In his final work, Rachmaninoff pulled out all stops in each of its three parts. The first part non allegro, features a driving rhythm that eventually settles into a lovely chorale of a large contingent of wood winds. It includes an alto saxophone, an orchestral oddity that adds tremendous color to the sound.

The following waltz and finale seemed like icing on an already delightful cake. Lahav Shani demonstrated he’s a compelling conductor, very much worth watching. Rachmaninoff provided many opportunities for solos for concertmaster Robert Chen and others. All were played extremely well.

The CSO repeats this concert on Friday and Saturday. Ticket information can be found here.

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Louis Harris

A lover of music his whole life, Louis Harris has written extensively from the early days of punk and alternative rock. More recently he has focused on classical music, especially chamber ensembles. He has reviewed concerts, festivals, and recordings and has interviewed composers and performers. He has paid special attention to Chicago’s rich and robust contemporary art music scene. He occasionally writes poetry and has a published novel to his credit, 32 Variations on a Theme by Basil II in the Key of Washington, DC. He now lives on the north side of Chicago, which he considers to be the greatest city in the country, if not the world. Member of the Music Critics Association of North America.