The relationship between Lang Lang and the Chicago Symphony is an important one, for it was with this orchestra he had a major breakthrough, substituting for André Watts at Ravinia in 1999 as a 17-year-old wunderkind. His enduring popularity was the big draw Saturday night in his take on Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in C major.

Charles Dutoit © Robert Taylor
Charles Dutoit
© Robert Taylor
The concerto's world première was given by the composer himself on this very same stage in 1921. A clarinet duet from John Bruce Yeh and J. Lawrie Bloom initiated matters, answered by a strained melody in the strings before the piano entered. From here on, there was no mistaking who the main protagonist was, Charles Dutoit and the CSO’s fine playing subservient to Lang Lang’s demands. His gestures were unashamedly ostentatious, for instance, quickly releasing a chord to fling his arm up towards the sky.

There was genuine lyricism in the first variation of the middle movement, and Christopher Martin’s trumpet made a noteworthy showing in the following variation. Lang Lang played the opening figure of the finale with quite a bit more staccato than I’d prefer, but what was most memorable was the biting Rachmaninov-like lyricism in the strings later in the movement. The gratuitous head-bobbing notwithstanding, Lang Lang’s self-assurance and technical fireworks were undeniably impressive, and perhaps the percussive character of Prokofiev is better suited to his proclivities than Beethoven or Chopin. I wish he’d use his popularity to show the wider public the power of subtlety and understatement. After extended cheers and ovations – the atmosphere was nearly that of a pop concert – he returned to the keyboard with the Intermezzo no. 1 in E minor of Manuel Ponce, fortunately a much gentler affair.

The rest of the program was devoted to Stravinsky, and it’s worth noting that instead of the Prokofiev, this week’s subscription concerts offered Stravinsky’s Symphony in C, which the CSO commissioned for their 50th anniversary. I caught the Thursday performance and was quite taken by the razor-sharp, muscular playing in this brilliant if infrequently heard neoclassical score. The program opened with Stravinsky’s Fireworks, a high-octane fanfare that draws comparison with Debussy’s prelude of the same title.  One could feel as if the lit wick of an incendiary was getting shorter and shorter in this dazzling display of orchestral pyrotechnics.

Although it was Lang Lang who was responsible for filling the hall, the real highlight of the program, and what truly elevated the evening beyond the quotidian, was Dutoit’s visionary take on The Firebird, in the complete ballet version. One was indeed struck at how much fine music was necessarily excised in the more commonly performed suites the composer later produced. The suites also feature more economical orchestration as Stravinsky perfected the craft, however, there was certain allure to hearing the raw energy of the youthful firebrand’s original vision. Though it may lack the wild pagan rhythms of the Rite that followed just three years later, under Dutoit’s baton, even to the wary, modern listener, the score sounded as remarkably fresh and revolutionary as ever.

The mysterious opening set the tone for the intense drama that was to come, and surely the natural-harmonic string glissandos are one of the most striking effects in the literature. Even without the presence of dancers, one could easily follow the narrative the musicians were unfurling, for example, Li-Kuo Chang’s mournful viola melody to depict the captured Firebird. There was a wonderful wistfulness in “The Princesses’ Khorovod”, first carried in the oboe by Michael Henoch and later answered by cellist John Sharp and clarinetist Stephen Williamson.

“Daybreak” was clearly not an entirely optimistic affair with the descending tritones in the trumpets. The visceral power of the orchestra was to be felt in “Magic Carillon”, with a large percussion battery including tubular bells, and a brass section augmented by a pair of Wagner tubas. “Infernal Dance of all Kashchei’s Subjects” was jaw-droppingly impressive, Cynthia Yeh’s xylophone being a standout, before it quietly dissipated into the “Lullaby”, desolately plodding along, grounded by the three harps. At last, Daniel Gingrich’s wondrous horn solo depicted the transcendent resurrection, and the orchestra built to one last glorious climax, brilliant and incandescent.