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Monday, February 27, 2012

Concert Review: Brass from the Steel City

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra plays Lincoln Center.
by Paul Pelkonen.
Man of Steel: conductor Manfred Honeck leads the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra has been around for over a century. But the ensemble has never achieved the same prominence as other American orchestras. Sunday's concert at Avery Fisher Hall under the baton of music director Manfred Honeck indicate that good things are afoot in the Steel City.  Mr. Honeck leads an ensemble with a rich, robust tone quality, led by the trumpets and trombones. Percussion and wind playing were tight, and the carpet of strings (the heart of any orchestra's sound) was tightly woven. 

The concert opened with Silent Spring, a work composed for the PSO by composer-in-residence Steven Stucky. Mr. Stucky's work is inspired by the environmental writing of Rachel Carson. The sound recalls the nature-loving middle period of Richard Strauss (particularly the Alpine Symphony) with exotic tones formed from bell clusters, shimmering strings and complex percussion parts for multiple players. 

Hilary Hahn took the stage next, wrapped in a flame-orange gown that recalled Serge Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel. That was appropriate, as the soloist was playing that composer's Violin Concerto, a lyric work steeped in Russian folk-song and lore. She began the work as a soliloquy for her instrument and expounded eloquently on the work's main theme. At the movement's close, the audience applauded.

The slow movement featured lyric, graceful playing against the orchestral fabric, a gauzy, lush sound that is antithetical to the industrial-strength writing usually associated with this composer. More applause greeted this movement, with the assembled audience clearly not knowing their concert manners.

The last movement, a kind of folk-tale in itself, provided ample opportunity for Ms. Hahn's fearless technique. This was Russa music of another time, evoking the mythic past of that great country before the Soviet revolution. She gave this work the strong performance it deserved, soaring up to the high trill by the bridge of her instrument and finishing with a flurry of well-placed notes. This time, the applause was on time, and entirely justified. She offered an encore, a graceful, nimble Sarabande from Bach's second Partita.

The second half of the concert featured a muscular, brass-driven reading of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony. The Fifth is the exception among the late Tchaikovsky symphonies, coming between the soul-searching Fourth and the heart-rending Pathetique. The work also borrows from the composer's little-heard "Manfred" Symphony, with one theme serving as a melodic thread between four movements.

That theme starts as a funeral march before metamorphasizing into a triumphant, swaggering celebration. Mr. Honeck and his forces played this familiar music with ferocious intensity, with the brass leading the charge. Unfortunately, less experienced listeners in Avery Fisher Hall jumped the gun again. Thinking that the work had ended, they applauded. Mr. Honeck ignored them, and drove the last bars forward, finishing the work in a blaze of sound.

The concert ended with another encore: the Galop from Aram Khachturian's Maskarad Suite. Given the opportunity to play an extended clarinet cadenza, PSO principal Michael Rusenick added a few bars of Leonard Bernstein's "New York, New York" from On The Town. It was a charming way to end a strong concert.
Contact the author: E-mail Superconductor editor Paul Pelkonen.

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