Pittsburgh, Honeck Start 10th Season With A Premiere

Manfred Honeck has begun his 10th season at music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
(Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Symphony)

PITTSBURGH – Each of the elements of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s first classical subscription concert of the new season Sept. 22 contributed a distinctive voice to an exceptionally rewarding and exciting concert experience. The program included a beautiful world premiere, one of three commissions celebrating music director Manfred Honeck’s tenth season at the helm, another enjoyable modern composition, and two Romantic-era masterpieces.

Boris Pigovat (Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Symphony)

The commissions reflect Honeck’s interest in spiritual music. A devout Catholic, he chose composers to write from Jewish, Christian, and Islamic perspectives. Those Abrahamic faiths were celebrated by the Pittsburgh Symphony under Gilbert Levine at the Papal Concert of Reconciliation at the Vatican in 2004, two years before the current music director made his Pittsburgh debut. Honeck has offered stimulating semi-staged performances of Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s St. John Passion at subscription concerts, and initiated a “Music for the Spirit” series at venues out in the community as well as at Heinz Hall.

Boris Pigovat’s new work, . . . therefore choose life . . . , was inspired by a passage in Deuteronomy (30:19) that contrasts “life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life . . .” The composer says, “I tried to express the feeling that life (with all its pain, suffering, and tragedies) is Beauty, Hope, Light, and Love.”

The 11-minute symphonic poem is meditative but well varied at slow tempos, starting with a strong statement by the strings that conveys concern and aspiration. It leads to a section expressing some of life’s pains before turning to its antithesis – a beautiful and lushly scored section lifted by the light of a flute solo. Those principles alternate until the gentle ending by solo flute over a soft marimba tremolo. Pigovat’s language is within a traditional context, yet personal. His orchestration is masterly in its contrast of depth, airiness, and sensitivity to texture. The new piece received a vivid performance and was well received by the audience.

The concert began with an entirely different kind of modern music — John Adams’ Lollapalooza, written in 1995 for Simon Rattle’s 40th birthday and premiered by him with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. The Pittsburgh Symphony gave the world premiere of Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine in 1986, and was led by Adams in two special concerts in 2008 mostly devoted to his own works.

Lollapalooza is an immensely appealing work. The composer says he began the work with a five-note idea for the five syllables of the title – C, C, C, E flat, C – which enters on the trombones near the start and is varied in the developing tumult. Honeck’s performance was especially effective when the Lollapalooza idea is fragmented to its final two notes stretched out in longer notes.

Christian Tetzlaff played the Brahms concerto. (Photo by Giorgia Bertazzi)

The Adams was followed by a complete change of mood, the noble lyricism of the opening of Brahms’ Violin Concerto. German violinist Christian Tetzlaff offered a fresh and urgent interpretation. The volatility of his phrasing brought gypsy fiddling to mind, although his tone production avoided soupiness and his emotional temperature never turned sentimental. He played the Joachim cadenza. Honeck and the orchestra were sure-footed partners with the soloist in a performance that gained greatly by turning away from the current tendency to play Brahms slowly.

The concert concluded with Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 (Organ), a popular yet also underrated piece because its last movement is not free of bombast. Saint-Saëns was dubbed the French Beethoven after his Organ Symphony was first performed. The work is dedicated to Liszt. While it does employ Liszt’s idea of thematic transformation, the concentration of the musical ideas and the cumulative power are far beyond what Liszt achieved in orchestral music.

Honeck led an effective performance. Saint-Saëns’ use of stacked winds in the first movement, emulating the sound of organ stops, was deliciously realized by the woodwinds and horn. The symphony is technically in two movements, each in two parts. The second part of the first movement, the Poco Adagio,  was somewhat cool emotionally, yet did soar. However, in the passage for the two sections of violins trading a short motif, the second violins were too soft relative to the firsts.

The second movement began with all the vigor one could want and maintained its thrust through more sustained lines. Despite being played on an electronic instrument, the big organ chord that opens the finale was powerful – more due to reedy registration than ample bass. Honeck was keenly responsive to the massive and lively material. The brass playing was thrilling without ever being over the top.