Daniil Trifonov

He’s a little stiff, winningly awkward, and electrically focused. Maybe you knew him in college. Maybe he was a computer science major. Maybe he evangelized to you about George R.R. Martin. This image describes Daniil Trifonov, the 21-year-old pianist who played Tchaikovsky’s iconic First Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra last night. Floppy-haired and dressed in a slim-fit suit and a skinny tie, Trifonov walked tensely onstage to applause, took a curt bow, and sat at the piano.

Sandwiched between Mussorgsky’s A Night on Bald Mountain and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the concerto demands a bold opening statement, as the piano plays strong block chords over the orchestra’s romantic melody. Trifonov channeled the tension of his bearing into percussive chords. On the most forceful marcatos, his hair jumped outward like a shock.

By the time the piano part entered the soft passages, Trifonov had summoned a gentle touch, coaxing an audience-silencing pianissimo and an affecting sense of line. His elbows flapped out to his side as the tune sang out, showing that any tightness he’d brought to the stage had vanished. Quick sections maintained musical direction, not becoming machinelike, and his virtuosity shined through when the music turned furious.

In an interview with Emmet Sullivan in Chicago’s November issue, Trifonov said “That first movement can be played as a conversation with a spirit, asking life’s questions to God.” His range of expression, from declamatory to introspective, matched his mysteries-of-the-cosmos metaphor.

At the end of the concerto, the conductor, Charles Dutoit, gave him a paternal hug around his shoulder. Several curtain calls brought Trifonov back to the bench to play an orchestral reduction of the Danse Infernale movement from Stravinsky’s Firebird as an encore, a piece allowing Trifonov to present a similar emotional gamut. On one spiky passage, he crabbed his body into an exaggeratedly tense posture—he’s so mastered his tension in performance that he can employ it as a pose for effect.

After more enthusiastic applause, Trifonov repeated his short, anxious bows. Then, leaning slightly forward, elbows pinned to his sides, he walked offstage.

The CSO and Trifonov play the same program November 15 and 17 at Symphony Center. For more information, visit cso.org.

Graham Meyer is Chicago magazine’s contributing classical music critic.


Photograph: Courtesy of Opus 3 Artists