David Afkham/Emanuel Ax Review- Beethoven, Shostakovich and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

On October 20, 21, and 22, 2016, Conductor David Afkham of the Spanish National Orchestra and Chorus led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) and internationally acclaimed pianist and Julliard faculty member Emanuel Ax at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan, in a program of Beethoven and Shostakovich, each piece comprising half the program. On the first night before the intermission Ax gave an encore performance of Robert Schumann’s “Des Abends”, (“In the evening”) from “Fantasiestucke” Op. 12, 1837, the title of which is taken from a collection of novellas by E.T.A. Hoffmann, who  also wrote the story of the Nutcracker. The three and one-half minute piece in D-flat major was notated by Schumann to be played “very intimately”, and Ax rendered beautifully the dreamy feeling of a gentle picture of dusk.

David Arkham; photo courtesy of Felix Broede

The first piece on the program, presented by Ax and the CSO, was Ludwig von Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto in C major for Piano and Orchestra” Op. 15, 1795, which historians go to some length advising us that it’s not really his first. Ax’s hands flew over the keys, sometimes tenderly, sometimes thunderingly; the orchestra members appeared enthralled during his solo playing of this difficult and impressive piece.This work is composed on a grand and festive scale, with the first movement resembling a rapid and exciting march coupled with a lovely and lighthearted lyricism. The second movement involves slower and more delicate scoring, and Ax was at his most expressive, his hands lovingly catching the sympathetic inflections. Finally, the finale has been referred to as “full of rambunctious humor”; Ax brought the piano portion to a modest halt but the audience wouldn’t let him retreat, bringing him back again and again until he performed the Schumann.

Emanuel Ax; photo courtesy of Lisa Marie Mazzucco

After the intermission the orchestra performed Dmitri Shostakovich’s powerful and dramatic “Symphony No. 10 in E minor”, Op. 93, 1946-53, described as “48 minutes of tragedy, despair, terror and violence and two minutes of triumph”. Although there is some dispute over the genesis of the piece, it is widely accepted as a description of Stalin’s reign of terror and death; it was composed immediately after his death, and Shostakovich wrote in his memoir, “Testimony”, that the 10th is “about Stalin and the Stalin years”, during which the composer himself had been publicly denounced. Shostakovich has also referred to the dictator as “a beast and a butcher”!

Conductor David Arkham; photo courtesy of Felix Broede

The symphony opens with an extended movement that comprises almost half it’s total length: a steady beat begun in the strings coupled with the clarinet heralding an extreme and passionate climax. Then begins an almost threatening waltz leading to what has been called “the movement’s nightmarish central section…complete with shrieking piccolos and ominous military drum”.

Pianist Emanuel Ax; photo courtesy of Lisa Marie Mazzucco

The second movement is a march and the third a waltz into which Shostakovich introduces himself by creating a musical signature based on the letters of his own name and the name of one of his pupils, a code which was cracked by Shostakovich scholar Nelly Kravetz. The finale begins with an extended solo wind portion, followed by another clarinet-led return to the “nightmare territory” of the opening with a huge and happier climax leading the way to triumph from the madness of the tyrant’s regime. The whole was a tour de force of brilliance: transcendence emerging from the darkness.

Guest Conductor David Arkham; photo courtesy of Felix Broede

Afkham is an energetic and enthusiastic maestro, a pleasure to watch in his perfectly cut black tails. He appears to gesture upwards with the baton in his right hand and his left hand also sweeping upwards. It is easy to see why he is in high demand as a guest conductor- he led our world-renowned orchestra with grace and precision while at the same time paying close attention to the responses of Ax and the different soloists and sections as they brought forth the first lyrically lovely masterpiece and the final sweeping emotional piece.

Guest pianist Emanuel Ax; photo courtesy of Lisa Marie Mazzucco


For information about and tickets to the Chicago Symphony’s programs, side series and special presentations, go to www.cso.org



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