Two late romantic pieces to be presented
this third weekend of the MGC subscription series are Pittsburgh
Symphony trademarks. The orchestra has commercially recorded both
works, and they also appear on the orchestra’s 1995 Centennial 4-CD set.
Steinberg recorded Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony in Syria Mosque
for Capitol Records in the fifties while a decade earlier (1941) Fritz
Reiner had recorded Richard Strauss’s Don Juan in Carnegie Music Hall
for Columbia Records’ shellac pressings. The Reiner has been reissued
on the Centennial Set. If you can borrow the Centennial Set, you’ll
also hear a very fine live performance of the Second Symphony conducted
by Andre Previn produced by WQED-FM in 1975 for the transcription radio
Reflecting on a PSO concert he conducted in 1904 featuring two of
his own compositions, Richard Strauss later lamented, “The one mistake
of this my first American tour, is that I did not engage the
unapproachable Pittsburgh Orchestra for every one of the concerts I was
engaged to conduct.” Although Jansons did not do much Rachmaninoff
during his Pittsburgh reign for reasons no one fully understands, he
treated us to a remarkable Rachmaninoff 2nd Symphony late in his tenure
– I think the very best performance of the work – recorded or live –
that I have ever heard.
Enough about the performance legacies of these pieces. Suffice to
say, when you have the opportunity to hear both of these pieces
performed live by the PSO on the same night, run – don’t walk – to the
box office to get tickets if you don’t have them already. Regardless
of who is conducting, the PSO owns these works and will wow you with
the result. Guaranteed!
I’ll let you in on a secret two PSO musicians recently shared with
me. There have been mercifully few occasions in the last two decades,
where during rehearsals the orchestra had come to the realization the
conductor, for whatever reason, was unprepared or simply incapable of
leading the orchestra to produce a minimally acceptable musical
outcome. In those rare instances, the orchestra has had to take
matters into its own hands and did so by ignoring the conductor.
It is not as hard to pull off as you might think. Think of
conductorless ensembles such as the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra who can
achieve glorious results without any help from the podium. The trick,
I’m told, is to take cues from other sources within the orchestra
(unnamed but you can probably figure out who they are). Pretty soon it
is the conductor who is following the orchestra. Using this approach
to salvage a performance worthy of its reputation, the Pittsburgh
Symphony has been able to fool critics and audiences alike into
thinking they were watching a competent, if not gifted conductor when
in fact they were not.
Lest you be concerned about the capabilities of this weekend’s guest
conductor, rest assured that in Hans Graf we have a marvelous musician
at the helm. Graf studied conducting with Mariss Jansons’s father,
Arvid, both in Weimar and Leningrad. Not a bad pedigree, I’d say.
Beginning his fifth season as music director of the Houston Symphony,
the Austrian maestro will be leading our orchestra not only this
weekend but again later in the season for part of its upcoming
Midwestern US tour.
Enjoy the performances this weekend. You’re in for a treat.