That the name Tugan Sokhiev has yet to ring a bell with most American concertgoers is perfectly understandable: Until his podium debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Thursday night at Symphony Center, he had yet to wield a baton in front of any major U.S. symphony orchestra.
It speaks to the perspicacity of the CSO's management that it took an educated gamble on a gifted young conductor who thus far has built his career almost entirely in Western and Eastern Europe.
Sokhiev is in his mid-30s and hails from Ossetia, the same Central Asian region as Valery Gergiev, his mentor at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia, where Sokhiev established his bona fides as an opera conductor. His career hit a bump in 2004 when he abruptly resigned as music director of the Welsh National Opera, a position to which he had been appointed by then-general director Anthony Freud, who now heads Lyric Opera. The consensus was that he was too young and inexperienced for the job (Sokhiev admitted as much later in interviews).
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220 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL 60604, USA
Inexperienced no longer, he has been building an impressive resume with second and first-tier orchestras. He currently holds the post of music director of France's Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse, and, as of last fall, music director of the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester in Berlin. He also maintains guest relationships with the Vienna Philharmonic and the Philharmonia in London. Big doors are now opening for him on American shores.
Sokhiev is clear of beat and graceful of gesture but most of all he has youthful energy to match the charisma he so readily radiates from the podium. One might regret he didn't choose a program with greater musical substance than the all-Russian calling card he presented on Thursday. That said, he demonstrated a natural command that had this formidable group of virtuoso players on their mettle: American orchestral brilliance met Russian soul.
Nowhere was that feeling more palpable than in their fervent and powerful reading of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4.
Sokhiev laid out this masterpiece on a spacious canvas. Tempos that were generally slower than usual allowed him to mold long phrases and generally heighten the score's dark fatefulness, in the overtly emotional manner one associates with conductors steeped in the Russian tradition. Sokhiev took liberties with dynamic markings as well, having the strings launch the Scherzo with pizzicatos so soft one could barely hear them, for example.
What he gave up in spontaneity, at times, he made up for in emotional intensity all the way through. Climaxes were full but never felt raw or bombastic. Far from a conventional, barn-burner finale, his Allegro con fuoco admitted no easy resolution of the dark conflicts in the previous movements, as his forced adrenalin-rush to the double bar made clear. The orchestra gave him all the flexibility, power and lyrical warmth he, and Tchaikovsky's music, required.
The first half of the program took the form of a Russian quasi-pops concert.
Borodin's brief tone poem "In the Steppes of Central Asia," not heard at the CSO since Jean Martinon played it in 1966, brought atmospheric solos from the clarinet, horn and English horn, but variable intonation from the assistant principal flute.
Sokhiev remained in Central Asia for Aram Khachaturian's Flute Concerto. This actually is the late, great flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal's 1968 adaptation of the Violin Concerto Khachaturian wrote in 1940 for David Oistrakh. Rampal did an effective job of making the music sound as if it were conceived for the high wind instrument, even though one misses the richer, darker colors of the violin version. In either guise the concerto wears its tuneful charms entirely on the surface.
However, as a brilliant showpiece for the nimble virtuosity of Mathieu Dufour, it passed the time pleasantly enough. Flutists everywhere would envy the ease with which the CSO's principal flute articulated the skittering Armenian dance rhythms, the superior breath control he brought to the wistful cantilena of the slow movement. He was matched by Sokhiev's close attention to balance and blend.
The audience rose to award Dufour an extended ovation, which prompted him to deliver a marvelously cool, liquid account of Debussy's "Syrinx" as an encore. To my ears, there's more music in this three-minute solo piece than in all 38 minutes of the Khachaturian.
The program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; $31-$215; 312-294-3000, cso.org.
CSO musicians voice solidarity with striking colleagues
The CSO members committee has issued a statement supporting musicians of the San Francisco Symphony, who have been on strike since March 14 in a contract dispute with management.
As "one of the great orchestras of the world," the San Francisco Symphony "deserves financial support equivalent to its success and stature," the statement reads. "In recent years many orchestra boards seem more interested in construction projects and expanding staff than in supporting music and musicians.
"We call on the communities of all of the orchestras that have recently suffered setbacks, including Detroit, Minnesota, Atlanta, Indianapolis, St. Paul, Spokane, Syracuse, Honolulu, Philadelphia, Louisville, and now San Francisco, to express support for classical music and the fine musicians who perform it."