Leonidas Kavakos lines up a classical-music trifecta in Chicago this season

Leonidas Kavakos gets a greeting backstage from David Taylor, CSO assistant concertmaster, before a CSO run in 2021.

Todd Rosenberg Photography

Always a welcome guest at Symphony Center, Leonidas Kavakos will be here even more frequently this season.

In a classical-music trifecta, the famed Greek violinist will appear in three Orchestra Hall engagements during 2023-24. He serves as soloist in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto for the annual Symphony Ball on Sept. 23 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Music Director Emeritus for Life Riccardo Muti. Later this fall, Kavakos returns for CSO concerts with Philippe Jordan on Nov. 16-19.

And if his work with the CSO wasn’t enough, Kavakos travels back to the Windy City with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Emanuel Ax for a Symphony Center Presents Chamber Music recital on Feb. 3.

Outside the greater Chicago area, Kavakos will join the CSO and Muti for the opening-night gala Oct. 4 at Carnegie Hall, in the first of two tour concerts there. Asked if performing in the historic New York venue gives him an extra thrill, he said, “It doesn’t matter. Even if we go to a small village with the orchestra, that’s very exciting. The moment you start playing, and you hear the sound and the collaboration, it doesn’t matter where you are. Of course, a great hall like Carnegie makes a huge difference. But in terms of the feeling of the music, it’s very exciting always.”

“To be able to be able to come so many times again and again to this incredible orchestra, it’s just a privilege.” — Leonidas Kavakos

The CSO holds a special place in his heart in part because of his studies at Indiana University with renowned violin pedagogue Josef Gingold through a scholarship from the Onassis Foundation. He recalls the CSO being revered like an “Olympus” by Gingold and others at the school. “So for me, it was very much a place that was in the center of my dreams. So now to be able to be able to come so many times again and again to this incredible orchestra, it’s just a privilege.”

For Symphony Ball and at Carnegie Hall, Kavakos will perform Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, one of the most popular works in the repertoire. But when he returns in November, he will perform a much more rarely heard piece, Karol Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No. 2, Op. 16. Written in 1932-33, it was the last major work finished by the Polish composer before his death in 1937.

Szymanowski wrote two violin concertos, and after hearing both of them, Kavakos immediately gravitated to the second one. “I’ve done this piece a lot, and it’s one of my favorite 20th-century compositions for the violin because it is so lyrical, but at the same time, it’s so symphonic,” he said. “The writing for the violin is very special, very personal, and it has a feeling of folk music.”

In particular, Kavakos praises Szymanowski’s orchestration, which he said recalls Claude Debussy in its ability to create a sense of transparency despite the large orchestral forces involved. “I try to play this piece with great orchestras, because of the problem of the balance,” he said. “It’s called a concerto, but it’s really like a symphony, and the soloist needs to have a huge sound but at the same time needs attention and transparency from the conductor and of course, incredible talent from the orchestra players. Otherwise, it becomes a very bombastic thing that kills the amazing kind of fragility, melancholy and nostalgia that Szymanowski is bringing to this music.”

For his SCP recital, Kavakos reunites with two of his favorite chamber music partners, Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax. Their program, part of a quick three-city Midwestern tour, will feature a piano trio transcription of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1. The idea of playing arrangements of the composer’s symphonies emerged during the COVID-19 shutdown as way to provide listeners a way to hear these works when full orchestras could not perform them because of required spacing and other restrictions.

The three started with an existing piano trio version of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 and has since commissioned transcriptions of some of the other eight symphonies by the celebrated composer. “The music is incredible, and it’s so much fun to play the music we would never otherwise play because unfortunately or fortunately we’re not members of an orchestra.”