Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Sonic Spectacular....

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra presented a concert on February 12 consisting

Beethoven- Symphony No. 1 in C major
Mozart- Piano Concerto No. 16 in D major
Respighi- The Fountains of Rome and The Pines of Rome

The soloist in the Mozart was Lars Vogt.  Music Director Manfred Honeck conducted.

This was a performance that makes a listener appreciate that this might just be the best orchestra in the country. Maestro Honeck's programming of the Beethoven as the lead piece was rather bold. This was an exquisite performance and a piece that Mr. Honeck seems to love conducting.  The fourth movement had a bracing drive and fast pace. The maestro was continually molding the sound of the orchestra with his left hand while providing a strong beat with his right. The only criticism was that late seating occurred after the first movement, and it interrupted the flow of the piece a bit.

Pianist Lars Vogt was born in 1970 in Düren, Germany. He studied with Ruth Weiss in Aachen and with Karl-Heinz Kämmerling in Hannover. Mr. Vogt has a high-profile career Europe as well as in the United States USA and Asia. In the 2003-04 season, for example, he had the honor of being named pianist-in-residence with the Berlin Philharmonic. In the past three years he has concertized under the baton of Christian Thielemann with the Vienna Philharmonic, embarked on an extensive tour with the Dresden Staatskapelle Dresden under Myung-Whun Chung, and made appearances with the London Symphony, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and the Orchestre de Paris. In the summer of 2008 he performed at the BBC Proms and the Salzburg Festival; in the current season he has been concertizing again with the Berlin Philharmonic and giving solo recitals in London, Paris, Madrid, and Istanbul. Lars Vogt has also become a familiar name in America, performing with the Cleveland Orchestra, the Boston and Chicago Symphony Orchestras, and the Los Angeles and New York Philharmonics.

In Pittsburgh, the Mozart was beautifully played.  There seemed to be great simpatico between Honeck  and Vogt.  They paid close attention to each other so there were no missed cues or dynamic imbalances.   The only problem I noted was that Vogt seemed to have a difficult time with his entry.  It seemed a bit behind the beat but after that his performance was as close to perfect as one could want.  Vogt's tone was very large, but never lacking in subtlety.  While not usually an instrument often in the spotlight, the timpani had a very controlled sound as played by Principal Edward Stephan, that is, the notes were crisp, without any tubbiness. 

Ottorino Respighi (July 9, 1879 – April 18, 1936) was an Italian composer and musicologist and conductor. He is best known for his orchestra "Roman trilogy": Fountains of Rome (Fontane di Roma); Pines of Rome (Pini di Roma); and Roman Festivals (Feste Romane). He was a masterful orchestrator and orchestral colorist.  His music is at times bombastic, but never less than beautiful and full or orchestral fireworks. 

The two Respighi pieces were played with undeniable strength, authority, and virtuosity. Honeck manages to pull the quietest pianissimos I have ever heard from an orchestra.  The control of the musicians was phenomenal in these quiet passages, which were marred only by a barrage of coughs from the audience.  The orchestra also manages to create great fortes without harshness. Maestro Honeck seats the orchestra in the European style so that the basses face toward the audience, which adds to their impact.  The solos by the orchestra members were wonderful.  Particular praise goes to concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley, whose tone is sweet and controlled.  Pittsburgh’s horns are renowned for their virtuosity.  The Principal horn is William Caballero who, along with Trumpet Principal, George Vosburgh, has been referred to as “gods” on the internet for their skill.  Honeck lets the brass have their way and it worked beautifully for these Roman tone paintings.  Principal Flautist Lorna McGhee also is noteworthy for her tone and skill.  Honeck added a nice touch at the end of the “Fountains” by adding some brass players in the balcony.  That nicely added a depth to the performance and a perfect complement to the off-stage instruments in other parts of the work.  I believe that the Heinz Hall organ is electronic, which sends chills up the spines of organ purists.  For me, the incredibly low pedal notes required by the music sounded just fine and were a perfect accompaniment to the orchestra.

This was one of those performances that make the hair on your arms stand at attention.  There is no doubt that something very special happens when the PSO plays under Honeck.  I only wish I could hear more. 

I have some other observations about attending this performance at Heinz Hall:
The audience seems a tad younger than I am used to in Atlanta.  That is a good sign.
The auditorium, which seats about 2600, was nearly full. Unfortunately there was a coughing epidemic.

There was a student recital in one of the lobbies of the Hall before the PSO actually played.  There was also a chamber recital after the PSO program, which consisted of excerpts from Beethoven’s String Quartet in C minor, played by PSO artists.  In total there was about 3-hours of solid music making.  The PSO gives its patrons their money’s worth and Heinz Hall has wonderful spaces for performing.

Heinz Hall is absolutely beautiful and carefully maintained.  It is the Baroque style in gold leaf, off white, and red.  Black marble also decorates the main lobby.  It has two bars and one elegant restaurant.  Finally, the sound of the hall is warm and reverberant, which showcases the PSO’s grand sound.  The orchestra association owns the building.

One of the Hall's lobbies has large posters discussing each composer on the program. They are informative and visually handsome. 

The PSO has 6 (yes, count them, 6) conductors.  They include Maestro Honeck (Music Director), Marvin Hamlisch (Principal Pops Conductor), Leonard Slatkin (Principal Guest conductor), Gianandrea Noseda (Victor deSabata Guest conductor chair), Lawrence Loh (Resident Conductor), and Thomas Hong (Assistant Conductor). Three of these postions are endowed (Honeck, Hamlisch, and Loh).  Of the 102 listed players in the symphony, a full 43 are in endowed chairs.

During this particular performance, the orchestra members presented a check for a $100,000 donation to the symphony association as part of their recent contract agreement.  They also agreed to take a ten percent pay cut.  Honeck and Hamlisch both contributed nearly a like amount from their salaries.  These were grand gestures and a measure of the spirit of the organization in tough financial times.

If you ever are in Pittsburgh, do your best to hear this great orchestra under Maestro Honeck.   It will be a real treat and an experience to remember.  He is a relative conducting newcomer but he brings polish and skill that has enhanced the PSO’s playing and reputation. 

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