By Lawrence Budmen

One of Americaís greatest orchestras the Chicago Symphony took the stage of the Carnival Centerís Knight Concert Hall on February 13 (presented by the Concert Association of Florida) for a high voltage program of music by Golijov, Elgar, and Strauss with violin virtuoso extraordinaire Gil Shaham as icing on the cake. This ensembleís sensuous, lustrous strings and sonorously mellow brass made a heady sound indeed.

David Zinman, in many ways Americaís great undiscovered conductor, was a galvanic force on the podium. Long a star in Europe, Zinman is a master orchestral technician and an inspired interpreter of a wide ranging repertoire. Under Zinmanís baton, the Chicago Symphonyís burnished tones glistened and beguiled the ear. 

Osvaldo Golijov may be the ďstarĒ composer on todayís music scene. This astounding Boston based Argentinean-Israeli manages to cross cultural divides, combining high modernist classicism with popular and vernacular influences. His Last Round is a tribute to tango master Astor Piazzolla. At once astringent yet contemplative, Last Round is a virtuoso workout for strings and Zinman drew brilliant, edgy pyrotechnics from Chicagoís legendary string section.

Zinman is a renowned interpreter of the works of Richard Strauss. He has recorded all of Straussís major orchestral works with the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra. The very first bars of Straussís Also Sprach Zarathustra are often inaudible. In the stunning new concert hallís x-ray acoustics, those low bass tones were not only clear and precise but vividly felt. The exhilarating sunburst of the brass fanfare was stunningly achieved. Zinman drew dark coloration from his world class instrumentalists. The entire score unfolded with arching lyricism, biting drama, and coherent musicality Ė the antithesis of the type of episodic performances Straussís orchestral showpiece is often subjected to. Concertmaster Robert Chenís Vienesse tinged violin solos were standouts. The gorgeous tones of principal cellist John Sharp provided darker contrast. Chicago has a rich history of Strauss performances. Former music director Frederick Stock conducted the American premieres of no less than five Strauss tone poems and the composer guest conducted the orchestra on several occasions. This performance upheld that illustrious tradition. 

The real event of this evening was Gil Shahamís ultra intense traversal of Sir Edward Elgarís sprawling Violin Concerto in B Minor. This score was written for Fritz Kreisler and championed by Yehudi Menuhin (who recorded it with the composer conducting). It is the ultimate bravura showpiece; a test of the violinistís technique, endurance, musicality, and artistic maturity. Shaham is a patrician artist who never fails to deliver. Whether playing Mozart, Beethoven, Sibelius, or William Schuman, he conquers all technical challenges and goes to the heart of the music. In Elgarís large scale opus, Shahamís silvery tonal sheen and finely spun phrasing turned the second movement Andante into soaring vibrations of the most magical variety. The concluding Allegro molto was a tour de force of bravura fireworks and sterling musicianship with a feverish cadenza that was awe inspiring. Above all Shaham brought transparency to a score that can sound murky and disjointed in less able hands. With Zinman providing surging, vital accompaniment, this was a performance for the ages.

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