Chicago Tribune
April 29, 1994

Diverse works form kinship in right hands

By John von Rhein, Tribune Music Critic

One of the rewarding things about hearing certain symphony orchestra programs is the way old music and new music can delight in each other's differences, even finding an unlikely kinship.  David Zinman's program with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night at Orchestra Hall was a good example of that process at work.

On one side of intermission came Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1, that much abused Romantic warhourse whose spirited rider (he even looks rather like a jockey) was the Indonesian-born, Juilliard-trained pianist Eduardus Halim.  On the other side came Christopher Rouse's Symphony NO. 1, written 137 years after the Liszt and in some respects its musical antithesis.  Both the soloist and the symphony were making their CSO debuts.

If the concerto may be said to rejoice in the life-force, Rouse's First Symphony subverts it.  Written in 1986 for the Baltimore Symphony, where Rouse was then resident composer, this is an extended adagio in one movement that suggests a tragic subtext ("death without transfiguration," in the words of the composer).  Shostakovich's mournful adagios are the declared model, but veiled references to other composers are also present, much in the American compositional fashion of the '80s.

Rouse typically goes in for extremes of loud and soft, at times tearing his threnody apart with angry shrieks of orchestral violence.  At one point a three-note motto is hammered out in a remorseless crescendo, like Morse code.  Near the end an English horn offers consolation amid catastrophe.  A quotation from Bruckner's Seventh Symphony, played first by violins, then by four Wagner tubas, signals a denouement without victory, the music dying away in a shudder of double basses and xylophone.

Zinman has long been a passionate exponent of Rouse's music and even without having heard the symphony before one could readily appreciate how deeply inside the work both he and the orchestra were.  The composer drew warm applause, even a whistle or two, from the audience and CSO members alike.

Unlike so many other young firebrands who tackle the Liszt E-flat concerto, Halim knows there is much more to the work than flash, bash and crash.  The famous opening chordal flourishes, drenched in full, round, gorgeous sonority, brought the audience upright in its seats, as did the brilliant articulation at top speed that made one marvel at the pianist's finger independence.  He also made much of Liszt's ruminative poetry, taking all the time he needed (and then some) for the Quasi adagio but never allowing his musings to slacken the line.

Temperament, technique, musical understanding, heart – Halim had it all.  In Zinman and the orchestra he found supportive allies, and his enthusiastic reception seemed a clear indicator we shall be hearing from him again.

Zinman's zesty account of Kodály's "Dances of Galanta" proved you don't have to be Georg Solti to fix tasty Hungarian goulash in Solti's former kitchen.  An Strauss' "Till Eulenspiegel" ended the program in a rollicking but never vulgar reading whose every episode was sharply characterized.

The program will be repeated Friday afternoon and Saturday evening.