Monday, March 9, 2015

Firebird's newer splendor, uncovered here again

When perusing the program notes for the concert I just attended last Saturday at Heinz Hall with Manfred Honeck conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, I discovered to my delight that two of the selections were All About Birds, in a sense. Birding is a hobby of mine, not as adamantly as some, but in a fun way whenever I get a chance. So here I was ready to listen to and discover for myself a new work which integrates actual bird calls with music.

If you want information All About Birds, try The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Locally there is the Carnegie Museum and the National Aviary. In my backyard there a many migrants that pass through every Spring and Autumn and of course the many residents of Summer and Winter are easily identified. What I like most is listening to and being able to recognize each bird's song or call, often without even seeing the bird. I learned to recognize many species when I helped with the Second Pennsylvania Breading Bird Atlas a number of years ago.

I've never been able to visit or hear the sounds of birds from the Arctic. Are you my Mom? That's why it was a thrill to experience this concert which highlights these sounds. Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara recorded the songs of Arctic birds, which are integrated into his Concerto for Birds and Orchestra, Cantus Arcticus. The birds I did not recognize, and some of their calls were hauntingly eerily alien, not like anything I've heard before. The fascinating way which the composer interwove the birds with the orchestra peaked my interest, yet I found myself trying to discern just the orchestral music, and I found it to be quite interesting all by itself, as if it didn't even need the birds to support the body of work, but the amalgamation was as beautiful as either of the parts.

But I have to return the the beginning of the concert: Mozart's Sinfonia concertante in E-flat major for Violin, Viola, and Orchestra with Noah Bendix-Balgley and Randolph Kelly. I often ask myself what it would have been like to have been there centuries ago to experience this music when it was new. Then I realize that it was probably uncommon for anyone to hear these concerts, as only the rich or well-connected would be able to do so. So my answer is that today we have the best opportunity through prerecorded music, and concerts such as the ones at Heinz Hall to really hear, for all of us, the best of classical music. And this performance was breathtaking, both soloists blended well together and with the rest of the orchestra, lead by conductor Honeck. This morning on WQED-FM I heard an instant replay of the 3rd movement recorded Sunday, and I could sense the difference between hearing it live at the concert hall versus on the radio. Live I could hear the sounds coming from each of the sections of the orchestra, it wasn't stereo, but an experience whereby each point, each source of sound can be instantly tasted, and my attention can be quickly placed precisely where I desire, both seeing and hearing together to savor the essence. This did not happen with hearing on the radio, yet it does have it's own advantages, like being able to instantly adjust the sound at will with the volume control. Or to listen over and over if it's a CD or recording.

The final performance of the evening was another selection All About Birds, so to speak, only this time it was one big bird: The Firebird. There was a short movie before the concert began with Manfred Honeck and some of the members of the orchestra describing their ideas of the upcoming performance. For instance, Principal Harpist Gretchen Van Hoesen showed us literally how much time and how often it takes her to tune up the harp before a performance, and the beauty of its sound when done just right, and as a contrast, the dissonant sounds that could come if not tuned correctly.  It was fascinating for me to hear from Kelsey Blumenthal, member of the PSO first violin section that timing is an import aspect for the musicians, so that, for example, when they are resting, it's not quite as restful as it might seem because they are counting to make sure the join back in at precisely the right instant.

Stravinsky: Suite from The Firebird (1919 revision) was the main attraction to say the least. This music is captivating to me, a walk through nature in so many ways, harmonious to all the aspects of nature and melodic in its formulation. I listen to this music whenever I can, and to hear it with the Pittsburgh Symphony is one of my all time treats that I've savored and hope to do again.

I saw this on a building that I photographed in Rothenburg ob der Tauber a few years ago, and it reminds me of Classical music:
Der Alten kunst gar lang versteckt, hab ich hier wieder aufgedeckt. Das sie nun lacht in neuer Pracht, Und mir und andern Freude macht.
Long ago the art the ancients hid, I've uncovered here again. She now laughs in newer splendor, and makes for me and others joy.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Romance: Softly Rejoined Melody

Romance: It happens here: A Night in Russia, That's how the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra has billed this evening's concert.

It's always my pleasure to enter Heinz Hall seating area, meandering through multitudes of patrons mingling or searching for their seats, each of us as anxious as the other to experience the upcoming performance. After a prolonged period of cacophonous warm-up, the first selection was about to begin.

Appearing on stage were conductor Krzysztof Urbański and Noah Bendix-Balgley and immediately they commence the first selection: Khachaturian: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. I noticed the first movement had frequent changes in tempo. Mr. Bendix-Balgley was impressive, this is an excellent concerto for him to show off his extensive artistry.

The first movement I noticed an orchestra melody solo and another counterpoint. Then followed a exuberant intermezzo solo.  Mr. Bendix-Balgley was seemingly able to achieve robust, stirring sounds of harmony with only his violin. As the movement progressed, at times there was allegro and others softly rejoined melody. I noticed a vigorous descent from the orchestra, then tentative uplifting contemplative passages replete with the aforementioned romance.

After taking some time to re-tune his violin (the first movement was a complete workout for him and this instrument), the second movement began. I could hear the clear soft solo tones from his violin, yet later there were a few hints of slight dissonance, perhaps built into the composition, but the full tones that followed, accompanied by a flirting flute ruled the texture. Orchestra up tempo brought loud momentary volume followed by a passage with low-pitched violas only, a Russian sound deeply textured.

Soon the recognizable third movement came with robust melodic form demanding bravado. All together an extremely well present concerto, which I fully enjoyed. After a standing ovation, for encore he played a little tune he called Yismekhu. I hadn't heard of it before, so I asked him how to spell it at intermission where he was signing autographs. I'm glad he is still around with the Pittsburgh Symphony for now, after recently being appointed 1st Concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic, I wasn't sure.

After intermission came one of my favorite symphonic creations of all time - Pictures at an Exhibition orchestrated by Ravel and written for piano originally by Mussorgsky. First, though, was a presentation with WQED-FM’s Jim Cunningham and conductor Krzysztof Urbański, describing differences between the original piano versus the Ravel orchestrated versions. This included small demonstrations so that we could actually hear the differences. I had never heard the piano version before, and it was amazing in two respects. First, the piano rendition was amazing.  Second, the way that Ravel could transform each part, ascribing different instruments to just the right parts and components, bringing it all together into an amazing congruous whole, now that was impressive exhibition!

As for the pictures, these photos were taken by my friend Miki Sarkozi before the concert and after intermission. The string ensemble appeared prior to the concert, they were students or alumni of Grove City College and played quite well.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Ladies and Gentlemen: Yankee Doodle Mozart

At Heinz Hall on Friday the program included Aleksey Igudesman(violin) and Hyung-ki Joo(piano) along with Manfred Honeck conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. I was anxious to attend, and I really didn't know what was in the program, yet I knew it would be genuinely entertaining.

The first selection was the always entertaining Bernstein Candide Overture, stunningly familiar, and much better in concert then I've ever heard pre-recorded.

Then the pair of entertainers walked on stage, ready to go. I could see it was going to be tongue-in-cheek humor to adorn the broadly classical program for the evening. Mr Joo seemed to take the lead with a zany form of comedy, followed by Mr Igudesman in more of a straight-man role, although both were funny.

I noticed that Conductor Honeck was very much into the comedy throughout the evening, often turning with broad smile to await their completion to continue with the music, which mixed very well with their routines.

I'm calling this post: "Ladies and Gentlemen: Yankee Doodle Mozart." Often Mr Igudesman would introduce the next piece with "Ladies and Gentlemen: Mozart." The first time Mr Joo asked the audience if they'd rather hear James Bond music, and Mr Igudesman asked for Mozart - both received applause. Eventually he'd play Mozart on the violin and it would transition into the James Bond theme with the orchestra.

Another inventive amalgamation included music from Rachmaninov and Eric Carmen (All By Myself) which included singing and lots of humor.

Mr Igudesman did a fantastic job singing a wonderfully orchestrated version of Uruguay.

After intermission came one of my favorite parts, a world premier PSO commission called "An Austrian in America" introduced by Honeck: "Can you guess who it is about?" There were 5 parts including 1). Overture, with Strauss interspersed with Copland, 2). Schubert Loves America (America the Beautiful with Schubert), 3). Yanky Doodle Mozart, 4). Oh My Darling Johann Strauss and 5). Stars and Radetzky Forever.

Another of my favorites was the Ennio Morricone "Fistful of Dollars" done by the pair in their own unique way. That's something not often hear live in a concert hall.

Another very funny part was with Rachmaninov's Prelude which according to Mr Joo, requires big hands, which he did not have (but only hands). So their solution? Mr. Igudesman  handed Mr Joo wood planks with fingers positioned in just the right places so that when Mr Joo placed them on the keyboard, it would play the notes for him.

The orchestra also got into the music, several times rising to the comedic occasion with some players joining the pair on stage for dancing.

I congratulate Manfred Honeck, as Music Director, and the rest of the Pittsburgh Orchestra for bringing a program filled with both classical music and broadly entertaining humor.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Valčuha and Benedetti with the PSO

Saturday's performance with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra was the second time I've had the pleasure to experience the beautiful sounds of the violin played by Nicola Benedetti at Heinz Hall. In March 2011 she performed Poeme for Violin and Orchestra by Ernest Chausson and the Tzigane for Violin and Orchestra by Maurice Ravel. If those seem somewhat obscure, then Saturday's performance of Szymanowski: Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra was perhaps as much or more. Benedetti, at least in Pittsburgh, does not seem to play only the well known repertoire, and has knack for bringing these lesser known works to the audience here, and I admit that I'd never heard any of them before. The beauty of her technique was even more developed than the last time. Her ability to bring perfect pitch to really high notes, and yet expand the dynamic range of the entire instrument was a delight.

At intermission I stopped to get an autograph from Ms. Benedetti, and I asked her the name of the piece she played for an encore. It was slow, sublime and melodic. She said it is on her CD 'Homecoming', called Auld Lang Syne Variations arranged by Petr Limonov.

The conductor I've seen here several times before. He's young and energetic, yet subtle and seamless. In 2012 he lead the PSO in "The Utmost Embodiment and Rhythm of Nature" with Ravel's Mother Goose Suite. In 2010 I first saw him conducting a performance of "The Mermaid" composed by Alexander Zemlinsky described in my post "Vast oceans of harmonic bliss". This Saturday's was just as thrilling. Rachmaninoff's The Isle of the Dead is a journey with many interesting aspects.

As I said, it was a thrilling evening, if you missed it you should make a note not do so the next time. Did I mention the beautiful emerald evening gown she wore for the performance and the contrast to her beautiful long hair?

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

What is the greatest?

What is the greatest? When it comes to classical music, which composition should be considered the greatest? Would it be one that you would say is better than all the rest? How fine a line should we draw when we determine what is the greatest? Who's symphony was the greatest? What concerto, classified by violin, piano or any other kind instrument? We could even draw finer lines and say perhaps we'll only compare movements.

Some have said that Brahms 4th symphony slow movement is the greatest of that kind of genre, but what about the slow movement of Mozart's Piano Concerto number 21?  Would one say that the greatest finale should be Beethoven's Symphony number 5 with that fantastic ending which never seems to end -- it continues on and on with even more uplifting notes to the point where you don't want it to end, but it does.

What is the greatest symphonic poem? Could it be perhaps Franz Liszt's Les Preludes? If you've never heard it please do. Strauss waltzes are perhaps the greatest, yet this all must be subjective according to our individual taste. Our tastes are temporal for we find that over time what we deem to be the greatest will likely change.

An individual might not like what the collective group picks in the aggregate to be the greatest, yet must we accept that there is some validity in that group think? When we view the outcome of the vote we see that those are typically amongst the greatest, and that probably influences our perception as well. When we view in a vacuum the choices, it may come out differently.

To me all of classical music is the greatest. I've grown to like it more and more. And even though I'm biased, I think that the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under the leadership of Manfred Honeck is the greatest. 

The other night I heard three compositions. I took detailed notes for the first composition by James MacMillan: Woman of the Apocalypse 

Since I've trained myself to be attuned to a new composition over the many years I've been coming to Heinz Hall, I was able to direct my attention to the details of the all the elements, the individual sections of the orchestra, that made up that new piece. Here I wrote my thoughts just as I recorded them, in raw form.

I did that because as I read through the thoughts, I can envision in my own mind those memories that were formed when I heard each part. I can recollect the vague yet concrete thoughts I had at the time, and I can almost re-hear some of the parts again. No matter how eloquent and how many words, it would be difficult to describe music to another. Yet if that other has also heard it before, then we could use the words as a baseline to remember and communicate the musical thoughts.

The night was just beginning because I was looking forward to the Beethoven Romances as played by Noah Bendix-Balgley and the orchestra. I've got all these on CD and listen to them often. I wasn't disappointed. Bendix-Balgley's rendition was beautiful. The tones were so pure and sublime, I can listen to it anytime.

Finally the Brahm's Symphony No. 4. What can I say, it's the greatest, but not THE greatest, all the music was.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Hear the Pittsburgh Symphony Live at Heinz Hall just one more time

James MacMillen "Woman of the Apocalypse"
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Manfred Honeck, conductor

Naked Strings commence
Percussion joins
Dissonant Horns fledglings hatch
Piano transcends
Drums ravage common tempo
Trombone segway her entrance
Cello stumbles
Bells ascend
Bass girds
String screech like an owl
Trumpets enunciate
Big O notes from Trombones emancipate
Drums roll thunder
Slowness descends
Piano and woodwinds ripple
Xylophones harmonize
Trumpets Sustain
Violas Scarily announce
Trepidatiosly drumming
Cellos grind
Horns accent
Percussion train has arrived
Revelry ground
Fluttery sounds underground
Grand scale top
Wood Xylophone promenade
Brass Dominates
Conductor yields ascending lines
Magical variations as the wand waves
Culminating Revelry like bees swarming
Darting hither and thither, pouncing, gone
Principle Mastery in unison
Yet dissonant sounds unavoidable
Shifting gears
Shattered grandeur
Strings enunciate
Flying heights
Woodwinds enjoin
Final Ascent
Hectic Hay-day
Resolving to naught
again Naked Strings
as in the beginning, so it is again
Monotone metronome drum
Heart beat methodically
volume, fullness
Louder, ready to Burst

Before I die...

Conduct a Mahler Symphony,
Be Happy,
Make a Difference,
Make a Better World for Everyone,
Fight a Lion,
See Alaska,
Go To Hawaii,
Run in The Boston Marathon,
Marry My Love,
Go To Outer Space,
Form a Band,
Sky Dive,
Be Rich,
Make My Parents Proud,
Live in Africa,
Be My Own Boss,
Be a Millionaire,
Fall In Love,
Just Succeed,
Carpe Diem,
Be Free,
Be the Best Dad Ever,
Become a Runner,
Save a Life,
Write on a Giant Outdoor Chalkboard,
Live Life to the Fullest,
Own a Ferrari,
Climb Mount Everest,
Goto Med. School,
Make the World a Better Place,
Marry Prince Charming,
John 3:16,
See Brewers Win,
Be a Kid,
Get Super Powers,
Become Immortal,
Dance the Cha Cha,
Find a Cure For Breast Cancer,
Be a Pokemon Trainer,
Be a Robotics Scientist,
Visit all 50 States,
Change The World,
Find Narnia,

How about:
Hear the Pittsburgh Symphony Live at Heinz Hall just one more time

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Drumroll please: Vivaldi's Four Seasons


Nicholas McGegan, conductor
Ye-Eun Choi, violin


Vivaldi: The Four Seasons for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 8, Nos. 1-4
Mozart: Chaconne from Idomeneo, Rè di Creta, K. 366
Haydn: Symphony No. 103 in E-flat major, "Drumroll"

A great concert! The Four Seasons was particularly good and Ye-Eun Choi was marvelous on violin!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Euphonic Glee

"Euphonic Blues" composed by Nancy Galbraith was a marvelously melodic and classical sounding new composition which almost seemed like a throwback to perhaps the mid-twentieth century, the kind of music that I can really appreciate. The audience seemed to agree as there was plenty of applause after the composition was complete and the composer also came on stage to receive recognition.

A polymath is a world renowned expert in multiple fields. The Economist ranked Stephen Hough in the top 20! He is expert in composing, painting, writing, conducting and, of course, as a pianist. This last weekend I was able to watch him play the solo in Mendelssohn's Concerto No. 1 in G minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 25. Indeed, wouldn't it be grand to experience some of those other works he has composed, painted, written, conducted, or otherwise. On this particular occasion the Mendelssohn concerto wasn't one I've experienced before, and it was fantastic. Isn't it nice to discover something new that's really good? This music was amazing. His fingers raced up and down the keyboard with the alacrity we might expect, yet this concerto was a surprise for numerous reasons, like the interplay between soloist and orchestra. To watch guest conductor Donald Runnicles seemingly dance a waltz with the Orchestra was a treat to behold.

  Lobby of Heinz Hall at intermission: Douglas Granger talks to Stephen Hough about his performance of the Mendelssohn Concerto No. 1

I've been waiting a number of seasons to hear Orchestral Highlights from Der Ring des Nibelungen by Richard Wagner. Beginning with Die Walküre, Siegfried and ending with Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods). Needless to say it was a spectacular, yet brief,  journey through this wonderful music. All the sections of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and especially the horns and brass, shined radiantly throughout the concert hall. Sounds echoed and reverberated in seemingly endless patterns of indescribable reflections and combinations of waves joining and separating to form a glorious amalgam perfectly blended just for me. Even at the back of Heinz Hall I was awed by the crisp clear sounds and the strings were not undone. I was also finally able to see a Wagner tuba, a brass instrument that combines tonal elements of both the French horn and the trombone, they had four of them, as well as four French horns (mostly it was 8 French horns and occasionally they would switch).

 Here is a good synopsis of The Ring Cycle including Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung—the four epic operas that make up Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera. 

The complete work of The Ring cycle is of epic scale, usually performed over four nights and lasting perhaps 15 hours. Here we got to hear just four selections in about one hour. But it doesn't matter that I long for more, it was a wonderful journey nonetheless, and I'll listen to much more on CDs or radio. But I'll harken back in my mind, over and over, the wonderful live tones I heard at Heinz Hall as a steadfast baseline to measure against.

After the standing ovation the PSO, led by guest conductor Donald Runnicles, presented a rare encore of the entire orchestra as a treat for Patron Appreciation Month. Here they played a condensed Wagner's Lohengrin - Prelude to Act III. WOW! What a way to end a concert. Afterwards I asked my daughter which piece she liked most. Her answer was Die Walküre, because I've played it so much at home or in the car and she remembers it the most.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Subtle Supplanted Expectations Expose a Smile

It was again my honor to attend a program at Heinz Hall with conductor Gianandrea Noseda, who just flew in from another concert in New York only minutes before, and Joshua Bell as soloist on violin. First up was the Lalo: Symphonie espagnole for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 21, which Mr. Bell said afterwards in a talk he had first learned when he was age 11.

Even now as I write this the full toned voice of Joshua Bell's violin is still ringing harmoniously in my mind. He has conquered the savage temperament of his instrument and masterfully tamed its pinpoint delicacies with such precision as to elicit chords of such beauty

Countenance became an expression of a tempestuous glowing fervor deep within the musical composition, which only he, the soloist could feign to adroitly release before the rapturously assembled audience whose attention could not be broken by nary a cough nor sprinkling of applause between movements. Indeed each of the patrons around me seemed spellbound by the performance unraveling before us.

Enthusiasm expressed by his mastery of the violin and the score exposed a smile in my heart translated to my lips. Simultaneously the music would affect my introspective mind as I discovered the notes were fixed yet offered more: the rhythm and other aspects of his solo interpretations supplanted subtle expectations and were deliriously absorbed by every ear.

The pure notes reached my soul and produced the most exquisite feeling of joy within me. I felt the greatest eagerness to fully hear more, yet at the same time furiously usurp the clock to slow down time so that I may savor the delicious sounds, to bathe in their silky texture and to break the surface of each luxurious tone like a swimmer emerging from a pool, refreshed.

Liszt's Faust Symphony is a joy to experience. The style of Liszt's composition is instantly recognizable, after all, this is one of my favorite composers.

After intermission Gianandrea Noseda joyfully reenters the stage, and commences with vigor. He's full of energy and exhibits it by neatly taking control of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and becoming one with the music. I read in the notes that this piece is rarely performed. There are three movements which dramatically portray the three main characters in Goethe’s rendition of the Faust legend - the fallen scholar Faust, his innocent love Gretchen, and the demon Mephistopheles. Each has it's own character, and full body which seem to programmatically follow their intended path. At once in the first movement I am reminded of another Liszt composition that I really enjoy: "Les Preludes," only with a slightly darker feel. The second movement is very quiet and very compelling. The final movement brings much intensity and a very dramatic conclusion - dare I say loud?

One final note. As I emerged from Heinz Hall after the post-concert talk I noticed Mr. Bell a few steps in front also walking down the street by himself. His anonymity seemed secure with most of the people on the streets, even at this stage of his career. I didn’t see anyone else recognize him. I would think that’s a good thing.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Hearing intertwines with watching just as elements combine to form molecules

It's always fun to see that someone retweeted you, or favorited one of your tweets. Such is the life in the modern digital age:
retweeted you
Feb 8:
The rocked the planets, elements, elementary, my dear maestro!
Ohiopyle waterfall I received a message from a fellow blogger, Natalie: "back to the Elements. In the one picture they showed of the water for the "Flowing" movement, it said the photo was taken by you! How cool and exciting is that?"

Well yes, it was kind of cool. The PSO asked to use one of my photos of Ohiopyle I took a number of years ago that I keep on flickr. They wanted to introduce a new composition called “The Elements.” In the video composer Reza Vali references the Youghiogheny river.

At Heinz Hall I very much liked the Elements composition. Each of the five parts, done by five local composers, was unique unto itself, and each was very well done.

Most of all, I remember that the second of the composer's works was the most emotionally like what I might describe as representing urban decay of sorts. It was very interesting. I like the effects on the strings and other instruments of a downward push with the left hand where the note would change in very chilling ways. I wonder what that effect is called? Certainly it was creative in the use of non-traditional techniques.

Yes, it would be GREAT to hear this new composition again while I write about it. It makes writing easier.

One final thought on 'The Planes' which was performed after intermission with a slideshow of NASA space images and simulations. I had binoculars, and looked mostly at the musicians instead of the slideshow of the planets.

That is not to say that the presentation was not interesting. I do like planets and the images, but somehow one reason I enjoy the symphony so much is because I like to watch the orchestra. As I watch them, I learn more and more about the compositions because the way they are played is fascinating to me. It adds to the enjoyment and to my understanding of how music intertwines with each individual's exemplification of the notes before them and the way I hear and listen helps me become a part of the music. I can watch planets at home, but when I'm at Heinz Hall or any musical performance I'd rather watch the players. That's the true 'show'.

Hearing intertwines with watching to form a better whole just as elements combine to make molecules.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Bruckner versus Tallis Scholars, an Idiosyncratic Juxtaposition

Christmas Tree at Heinz Hall with choir and Maestro Honeck
I took my daughter to the PSO concert Saturday night. She stayed to listen to the pre-concert talk by Fawzi Haimor, Assistant Conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra while I went out to listen to the choir in the lobby and take photos. She reported that Mr Haimor played several selections which were due to be performed during the forthcoming concert. He was casual and funny in his descriptions. You could hear the singing behind him. He looked around -- "I can hear the voices already;" there was laughter. Some of the Bruckner selections he played were quite loud. Paraphrasing one comment he made: "now that just screams superman, but don't go thinking about that while they're playing, just focus on the music." Later, my daughter reported that she "completely forgot about the superman reference during the concert."

Manfred Honeck came out onto the stage as the concert was about to commence. He indicated that he doesn't usually appear alone on the stage, in this case he was alone because the PSO would not accompany the Tallis Scholars and would only appear in the second half after intermission. Maestro Honeck described the placement of The Tallis Scholars in the same program as the Bruckner Symphony 4, they seemed to complement each other in a very interesting way. To me, the placement of these two very, different and very uniquely individual types of compositions seemed a very idiosyncratic juxtaposition, yet I was quite pleased with the result. Note that Bruckner himself had a wide range of types of music. One of his vocal compositions appears in the first half and his symphony in the second half. Here are some of the words Honeck used to describe the music: "unique and very special, architecturally a cathedral of sound, epoch and heroic with purity, pertaining to a special time and place, and that we should prepare our heart and mind for this very special sacred music."

"Not your average church youth choir!" -- a comment from my daughter during the performance.

I read in the program notes that he Tallis Scholars, considered one of the world's leading Renaissance vocal music ensembles, celebrate their 40th anniversary this year. During the first half of the concert, the Tallis Scholars presented an 'a cappella' program, including Allegri's famous Miserere, that highlight the Renaissance inspirations in the music of Bruckner.

The 'Miserere' was indeed the highlight of the night. The vocals were amazing. Five of the singers were on stage, and the other 5 were arrayed across the balcony tier. At first I didn't realize this, and since I was observing with binoculars, I was curious how they were making such beautiful voices without moving their lips. When I finally looked around I saw them down below on the tier. My daughter and I were both completely amazed at the purity of the vocals. After they were done the entire audience gave a standing ovation. Since I was all the way up on the back of the tier, literally the furthest away one could be, to me this was a first. Up there not everyone stands for an ovation, but this time they did. Also amazing were the acoustics at Heinz Hall, their voices resonated profoundly and with plenty of volume even up there.

Bruckner's Symphony No. 4 is subtitled "Romantic." The so-called 'programmatic' theme of the music had references to a medieval castle, knights on horseback, the beauty of Nature and a hunt. All of these aspects, if I think about it, do seem evident in the music, yet when I listened I focused on the music itself.

This is the second time I've heard this symphony with the PSO. The last was the beginning of February, 2009. I'm including my words from then because they apply to this second hearing very well, and fully describe my thoughts for both. The only difference is that this time I found the 1st and 4th movements to also be exceedingly well done by the PSO. Having heard this symphony now twice, it becomes one of my favorites.

The second movement of the Bruckner was my favorite. You hear the raw power of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra strings, each member acting in unison, pushing the romantic uplifting theme, reverberating deep into my body and soul. In person it is worlds apart from a recording. The violas get to shine. As they play with alacrity and potency, their theme is counter-posed by the rest of the strings preforming pizzicato. Interesting how only 12 viola players can put forth so much volume, when compared to perhaps 26 violins and the rest of the strings, not to mention the obvious fact that violas are facing away from the audience, yet it sounded wonderful, even to my ears, being seated in the very last row of the gallery, a testament to the acoustics at Heinz Hall.

Christmas Tree at Heinz Hall with choir and Maestro Honeck

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The most amazing rendition of Prokofiev's second piano concerto

I received an email today from a friend who had just read my latest post to the PSO blog. He asked: "Did you or will you write anything about last week's performance? That Russian kid did the most amazing rendition of Prokofiev's second piano concerto (not one of my favorites – until now). Amazing talent, incredible overall performance, including the Rachmaninoff."

Of course my friend was referring to young Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov who performed with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra with guest conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier (another 'must not miss').

When I read his message I replied that unfortunately I hadn't been able to make it to the performance, and that I wish I had! I heard a bit of an instant replay on WQED Monday morning and I knew it must have been really good based just that little bit. Then I asked my friend if he'd like to write up a bit about what he heard so that I could post it here. At first he said he was rather busy at work, for which I can fully understand. Yet I persisted and said I'd just use what he's sent already. He went on:

"That said – the pianist was a real surprise. Only 22, but in fantastic command of nuances – this is one of those piano concertos where there is a lot loud keyboard playing and that’s pretty hard to nuance. Also, without offence, I might add that he sort of looked like an alien, in as much as he seemed kind of discombobulated and slouched, with long spidery limbs, and I concluded that he must have some alien genes too, it’s just not possible to take a piece of music that I really don’t like that much and make me like it.  Or maybe it was the glass of wine I had before the show…."

And then about twenty minutes later I get another email:

"So here’s another thing: throughout the piano concerto I kept thinking Jimi Hendrix… so many weird harmonics (or harmonies?) and twists and turns.  I wonder what kind of mushrooms they had in Russian when Prokofiev wrote this one….  It’s just a really strange piece, and I’m not much into strange, but this kid made it sound “normal.”"

So there you have it, a glowing review if I ever read one.

I think that talking and reading about classical music adds to the enjoyment and so I felt the need to share his thoughts on a concert that I couldn't make. I enjoyed the email conversation I had with my friend, and that made me miss not seeing it even more. But here's the good news for those of us who did not. We can all be looking forward to listening to the concert in about a year on WQED 89.3 when it is rebroadcast there.

Autumn season at Phipps

Monday, October 28, 2013

A Trill By Any Other Name

I learned something new at the Pittsburgh Symphony concert the other night. The 1732 Bergonzi violin I'd been using the term 'Tremolo', when perhaps I should have been using 'Trill'. I'm still not quite clear the exact difference and which term is best used. I was intrigued by its use all throughout Bruch's Scottish Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra. Noah Bendix-Balgley created amazing sounds with his recently acquired 1732 Bergonzi violin. Yet I find his technique, and indeed that used by many violinists somewhat excessive in the use of 'Trill' especially in the slower passages. It was used extensively throughout.

At first I didn't notice because it provided interest through the slight harmonic cross of tone and dissonance. But eventually I did begin to notice. I began to notice because I could actually see the technique being employed by the solist. That seeing translated into understanding and focus, and to realization that to me, it is used to excess to such an extent that it began to gnaw on my sensibilities. Perhaps it is the purpose of the composer to include so much of this trill. The final movement was the only place where the trill wasn't so frequently used, but I think that is because the score was strewn with so many notes played in rapid succession, that it would have been impossible to do so.

As a contrast Noah Bendix-Balgley played Bach's Gavotte from the E-major Partita. Here the trill was used, but only sprinkled in sparingly. It was only used at the end of a measure or set of measures. Throughout you could hear the pure tones of this beautiful instrument, performed so well by the soloist. This is the sound that I prefer.

Throughout both performances, Mr. Bendix-Balgley composure and posture added great measure to his actual performance.

After intermission came the Robert Schumann Symphony No. 4. Blunt and bold, it hits you with its melodic lines that repeat frequently, yet I don't mind the repetition because it is developed into abundant variations and flavors, and if you listen intently, there are subtleties that augment the power and rhythm, especially in my favorite movement, the scherzo.

Nikolaj Znaider does a great job conducting the PSO with seemingly little movement, he doesn't steal the limelight from the orchestra, yet he directs their flowing out-pour of lush sounds with zest and a great smile on his face throughout. And all this without a score to read, his knowledge of the measures, the bars and the movements of this symphony is superb. I remember when Mr. Znaider played solo violin a few years ago at Heinz Hall, and now conducting he is also at the top of his form.

I don't want to forget the Fingal's Cave, or Hebrides Overture by Mendelssohn which the PSO used to start off the evening. It was simply superb. I hope they play it again soon, its worth every moment and well worth a listen!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Sustained Synchronized Tremolo

Saturday was Carnegie Mellon University Night at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. I didn't get a chance to join the pre-concert reception or to meet CMU President and his wife, Dr. and Mrs. Subra Suresh, but I was pleased to see so many students from my old Alma Mater in attendance.

Barber: Adagio for Strings, literally there were only strings. When the music progressed to a higher octave in a fever pitch of vibrating passion, it sounded like sustained synchronized fingered tremolo; the crescendo lingered for moments that spilled out from the stage into every nook and crevice throughout Heinz Hall. Not just my ears, but my whole being felt the goosebumps of the rich lush strings, and then the music suddenly stopped- as intended by Barber, and executed wonderfully by Honeck and the PSO, only to return again to a lower octave, as if the symphony needed to take a breath. What mood is intended? Sad, subdued, passionate, perhaps all and more, I'm really not sure, but I can say the music is profound in its effect emotionally and musically, and I'm yearning for more.

More is what I get, because next music director Manfred Honeck brings us the American premier of Janacek: Symphonic Suite from Jenufa arranged by Manfred Honeck and Tomas Ille. This is a real treat as this widely ranging suite visits so many symphonic themes. It began with the xylophone as sort of a metronome. There were tempo changes that sparked interest. At one points it seemed like the horns went wild, followed by subdued strings gradually becoming uplifting and sprightly. Then a pizzicato walk - an awakening of sorts. Next moment it was stormy like an announcement by the orchestra of an upcoming event. Again slow with harps and strings, bassoon and flute and a beautifully rendered strict ending.

Next Yulianna Avdeeva came on stage to play Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21. She was wearing a suit with long tails, and her long dark hair augmented the outfit admirably. The first movement showed a special synchrony between the PSO and the soloist, and Honeck kept it flowing with great harmony throughout. The slow second movement evoked a beautiful sense of emotion, with the tune hard to forget, I was hearing it in my head even the next day. I was really impressed with Avdeeva's technique on the fast final movement, her fingers were impressive as they spanned the keyboard, sometimes crossing over for selections.

After intermission came the grand and beautiful Dvořák: Symphony No. 8 in G major. To me it's like an excursion to the country. Manfred Honeck used no score, he obviously knows this music well. Throughout we were treated to rich strings to rule the night as if morning were approaching, creatures would take flight. Music to range vast land and sky. Power to engulf regions beyond my reach. Birds landing on a branch, then each one in turn flutters overhead. Outstretched wings and breezes lifting with sustained flight. It was a memorable night.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Can't Avoid Temptation: Fate and Fortune Elucidated with PSO

These days smartphones make the dissemination of information and photos much quicker. A few days ago I saw the tweet/photo on Twitter:

"@Lisette_Oropesa Beautiful day in Pittsburgh! All ready to sing #CarminaBurana with @pghsymphony and @manfredhoneck"

In one sense, this is a great way to remind people of what they already know, that an event like this ought to be really great, and that we shouldn't forget that we want to go and to make sure we make plans. That's what I did. I made sure I was there for Friday night's opening of the Mellon Grand Classics at Heinz Hall with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra with Music Director Manfred Honeck.

As she entered the stage, one could instantly see that Lisette Oropesa looked very beautiful in her ruby red dress with frilly ruffles horizontally wrapped all the way to the ground, ruby lipstick on her lips, ornate earrings with triple inset rubies and ruby red cheeks with the most effusive smile contagious in its effect. But it was her voice that really impressed. We had to wait for quite some time while Manfred Honeck with the PSO, the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh, and soloists Andrey Nemzer (tenor), Hugh Russell (baritone) and Lisette Oropesa (soprano), would get to the solo passages.

Most people have heard the first minute or two of Orff's Carmina Burana. Yet how can we avoid the temptation to listen to the entire piece, it's fate and fortune elucidated for the enjoyment of ears and eyes. I've seen and heard it twice now, and I have to say this performance was the best. And I was left yearning to hear it again, during intermission I half jokingly said to my friend, Encore, I want to hear it again, in its entirety, right now.

But let's back up the start. The concert began with an orchestrated version of The Star Spangled Banner which achieved a wonderful first sense of beginning for the new season. This was followed by the Beethoven: Overture to Fidelio, you can never go wrong with Beethoven, his music is always enduring and always a treat to listen to, especially live at the concert hall. The PSO conducted by Manfred Honeck presented this overture wonderfully.

This was followed by a World Premiere/PSO Commission by Stock: Sixth Symphony. New music is always fun to experience - this night was no exception. The music began quickly by jumping right in to what seemed like a suspenseful chase and progressed through various flavors of interesting combinations successfully using all the sections of the orchestra to individually portray sections of music, yet as a hybrid amalgamation it made sense as a conglomerate statement. My favorite was the third and final movement. I am not sure if this was intended as programmatic music, yet somehow I conjured visions of the old west in my mind, sweeping vistas, buffalo and cactus, native Americans and pioneers clashing culminated with peaceful rewriting of history.

Soprano Lisette Oropesa discusses the upcoming October 4-6, 2013 Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra...