By Roy C. Dicks
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Commissioning new works should be a key mission for any orchestra. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra takes the goal seriously through its Composer of the Year commissions, established in 2001 with the help of the National Endowment for the Arts. Last season, the PSO varied the formula by engaging eight Pittsburgh area composers, five of whom contributed sections to a collective piece, The Elements, inspired by Pittsburgh’s history and environment.
The Elements was featured during the PSO’s two-night stand (Sept. 28-29) on the Carolina Performing Arts series in University of North Carolina’s Memorial Hall, along with pieces by Steven Stucky and Mason Bates. The latter are former and current PSO Composers of the Year.
Before the playing of The Elements, Austrian-born Manfred Honeck, the orchestra’s music director for the past six seasons, spoke in an introductory video (at right) about the 2014 work commissioned from five Pittsburgh-area composers (Patrick Burke, Bomi Jang, Mathew Rosenblum, Reza Vali, and Amy Williams). Then they each described which images and historical events inspired them.
The five pieces are about five minutes each and are essentially sound portraits.
Burke’s Flourish, based on water and earth as elements of rebirth, begins with pizzicato strings in repetitive cycles, regularly interrupted by blaring brass. A lush tune emerges with percussive underpinnings, turning sweetly quiet to end the work.
Jang’s Awake, about the need for trees to make urban settings livable, begins quietly with mysteriously rolling drums over high-lying string phrases that shimmer eerily. The atmosphere changes suddenly into a cacophony of mechanical rhythms and churning strings.
For Eliza Furnace, Rosenblum successfully evokes the vibrancy of the city’s former iron-furnace workers. Thudding drums and clanking cymbals bring images of massive machinery, with trumpets and low brass adding further detail.
Williams’ Flood Lines is a depiction of the 1936 Pittsburgh flood. The piece easily conjures the calm before the onslaught, presaged by clanging alarms and spiraling figures like rushing waters, followed by the sudden hush of aftermath.
The final part, Vali’s Ravân (Persian for “flowing”), relates to Pittsburgh’s Youghiogheny River, calling forth its roiling white waters with a raucous scherzo of insistent, repeated notes, tempered for a time with a gentle, exotic dance tune before resuming full force.
The short duration of the pieces, the prominent use of percussion and brass, and the alternation of extreme quiet and climatic blasts gave these works a certain sameness that made me wish to hear more substantial, less programmatic works from these composers. Nevertheless, each displayed considerable skill in orchestrating moods and crafting structure, with highest marks to Rosenblum and Williams. All five benefited from Honeck’s obvious care and understanding, putting these works in their best light.
The concert began with Stucky’s 2011 Silent Spring, a four-part, twenty-minute tribute to Pittsburgh-area native Rachel Carson and her groundbreaking books on environmental problems. The piece begins with ominous, low burblings overlaid with blasts of brass and percussion, progressing to a melancholy English horn solo sprinkled with spooky piano chords. Suddenly, there are panicked, rushing phrases, with screeching strings building to a massive wall of sound, ultimately dying away into near silence. Stucky has a sure hand at instrumental layering and creates palpable moods. This was not meant to be pleasurable music and Honeck gave full due to the purposeful harshness of its warnings.
Opening the first night’s program was Mason Bates’s 2006 Rusty Air in Carolina, originally commissioned by the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Symphony. He wrote it as homage to a pleasurable summer spent in Brevard, N.C., where he was struck by the sounds of cicadas in the humid evenings. The twelve-minute piece begins at dusk, the buzzing insect sounds created electronically, over which low brass rumblings imitate the summer’s oppressive swelter. As the night progresses, the music builds to a jazzy syncopation and a lyrical melody that dies away to a quiet dawning with bird sounds. The piece is certainly evocative and shows a fine grasp of orchestral textures and effects. Honeck shaped the compositional arc knowingly, resulting in a pleasing if somewhat fleeting musical experience.
Familiar fare filled out the remainder of both nights’ programs. For me, the highlight was the Shostakovich Symphony No. 5 on the second night. From the first few bars, one could sense it was going to be an intensely focused, deeply felt interpretation. The austere quiet evoked by the violins early in the first movement was chilling; the dancing swagger of the second movement was vividly characterized by the strings’ astonishingly precise pizzicato.
Honeck made the third movement’s emotional build-up almost unbearably searing, molding its final bars into an unusually slow but mesmerizing fade-out. The last movement began at a fiery clip, Honeck keeping the tone more burnished than raucous. He allowed the lyrical mid-section to become rather leisurely, but the finale’s ferocity put the seal on this gripping account.
Honeck’s astute interpretive qualities, so apt for the Shostakovich, seemed less so for the previous evening’s Mahler First. Honeck brought out all the work’s color and drama, and the orchestra confidently gave him everything he asked for. But his tendencies to go for extreme dynamics, to linger over introspective sections, to spotlight individual effects and to smooth over rough edges led to a very controlled view. There was little youthful joy or heartfelt emotion; he highlighted the music’s execution rather than its character. Still, the audience rightly lauded the orchestra’s talents and Honeck’s assured guidance.
The most vociferous audience response, however, was for Honeck’s collaboration with Valentina Lisitsa in the Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. In another local connection, the Ukrainian-born pianist makes her home in North Carolina now.
Lisitsa took full advantage of this pianistic showcase, displaying prodigious technique, employed with crystalline clarity and striking shadings. Her acute focus, unbroken by any relaxation during orchestral passages, produced a riveting unity that kept the audience in thrall. Her approach matched Honeck’s in concentration and crispness, a cool interpretation underplaying the work’s romantic lushness but making it a breathtaking ride.
Roy C. Dicks has been a performing arts correspondent for the Raleigh (NC) News & Observer since 1997.