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February 2010
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Andrew Patner on Arts and Culture

The View from Here: CSO with Oundjian, Wosner, and Clevenger: three careers at contrasting moments on their arcs


Here, with cuts restored, is my Saturday February 6 Chicago Sun-Times and review of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert of Thursday, February 4, 2010, with guest conductor Peter Oundjian and pianist Shai Wosner. I also discuss the work of the legendary CSO principal horn Dale Clevenger.

Oundjian gains strength as conductor

Wosner wows in concerto debut; Clevenger and twilight

As with athletes, musicians are at the mercy of age and illness. Peter Oundjian, who spent much of his career as the first violinist of the Tokyo String Quartet in its glory days, began to lose his abilities as a string player in the mid-1980s because of a then little-known neurological condition, focal dystonia, which also has affected the lives of the great pianist Leon Fleisher and former Chicago Symphony Orchestra principal oboe Alex Klein.

OundjianOundjian (right) finally had to abandon the quartet and the violin at just 41 in 1995. But a sunny disposition, a strong curiosity, and a gift for other forms of music-making allowed him to move almost immediately into orchestral conducting. Now in his sixth season as music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, he made his CSO subscription concerts debut Thursday night at Orchestra Hall with a program that showed both how much he has achieved in this second chapter and some areas where additional experience will work in his favor.

Opening with Rimsky-Korsakov's 1887 showpiece Capriccio espagnol, signs were not great when Oundjian gave too many soloists their heads and failed to enforce discipline. (Principal harp Sarah Bullen was a notable exception, brilliant and controlled in her expansive solo.) But from the first movement of Mozart's dark and much-loved Piano Concerto No. 20, K. 466, through a rare CSO performance of the hymn-studded, oh-so-English Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 5 (1936-43), Oundjian showed real talent for bringing out the strings, supporting his soloist, and communicating with his players.

Shai_wosner_33Said soloist was the young Israeli Shai Wosner (left), an alum of Daniel Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra project, and previously a frequent guest here and at Ravinia in concertos and recitals for two and three pianos. In his overdue CSO subscription debut, Wosner showed a remarkable blend of the intellectual, physical, and even devilish sides of performance that could lead to great accomplishment. Complexity clearly attracts him, but so does its translation into apparent ease in performing. The ingredients that were in the young Rudolf Serkin are all here. Let's hear him more.

Dale Clevenger ADale Clevenger (left), 69, has been principal horn of the CSO and one of the world's legendary orchestral musicians for exactly 44 years now. In addition to his unmatched abilities as a section leader and his contributions as a teacher for almost a half-century, he has been a conscience of the CSO and an outspoken critic of any moves by the orchestra toward mediocrity. His outspokenness has earned him enemies who know little about his instrument.

So it is no joy to write these words, but the level of his playing this season and his technical troubles in high-profile solos in both Chicago and at Carnegie Hall over the last month have been far below the standards of the CSO, standards that he more than any other current member of the orchestra has maintained and defended.

As with a great athlete in his twilight, as with many of his colleagues who faced similar periods after decades of distinguished service to the CSO, this cannot be an easy time for Clevenger. But it's time for a cap on a unique orchestral career that should be noted for its many triumphs and not a late struggle against time.