Yefim Bronfman and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra / by Doyle Armbrust

One of the most in-demand concert pianists, Yefim “Fima” Bronfman must have an absurd number of frequent-flier miles. His current itinerary takes the Soviet-born Uzbekistani from Schenectady to Dubrovnik to Osaka, stopping everywhere in between. The 51-year-old returns to Chicago to join guest conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15, a work largely eclipsed by the composer’s second, more instantly popular piano concerto.

Although music historians may be editorializing when linking the anguish in the earlier piece to the bridge-leaping suicide attempt by Brahms’s buddy, Robert Schumann, the longing found throughout the composer’s catalog is abundant here. Its pathos undoubtedly will be channeled with nuance by Bronfman’s marvelously thick hands .

San Francisco Symphony conductor Thomas artfully translates classical music’s more esoteric scores for audience members who would otherwise plan a hasty escape before the “pots and pans” portion of a concert. The allusions to Mahler’s Fifth and Ninth symphonies within Alban Berg’s “Three Pieces for Orchestra” make for welcome entry points for those leery of anything Schoenberg-like. Under the insightful baton of the master Mahler interpreter, early-20th-century music is likely to win some converts starting Thursday 11.

Perhaps most intriguingly, Ruth Crawford Seeger’s despondent “Andante for Strings” opens the program. In this arrangement from the third movement of the American modernist’s 1931 String Quartet, waves of pain emerge from and recede into a lagoon of gloomy bass. It all adds up to the most adventurous program on the CSO’s 2010 calendar.

- Doyle Armbrust

published in Time Out Chicago on February 10th, 2010