Alsop brings Pittsburgh The Confession of Isobel Gowdie

I had made plans to attend the Friday night concert last weekend.  And Tuesday, when I saw Andrew Druckenbrod’s (Post-Gazette) preview, my anticipation grew.  Looking at the story behind James Macmilan "The Confession of Isobel Gowdie" brought to mind "The Crucible" by Arthur Miller.  I was looking forward to how the tale of emotional struggle and pressure that leads to a false confession in an intolerant age would be communicated through the medium of music.

Our conductor for the evening, Marin Alsop, came out.  But instead of launching into the piece, she proceeded to undertake a bit of audience education, introducing us to a few of the motifs that The Confession used.  And being introduced to the story and hearing the motifs that would be part of the telling enhanced the experience greatly.  As the piece progressed, I could almost see the anguish as she is pressed to confess, of the confusion and chaos of having to testify to events that did not happen, which would lead to her execution.  The chaos as her world is ripped apart showed in the music, the weeping and gathering storm motifs we were told to expect, even visually as violin stand mates had different bowings different by stand, giving the visual impression of a storm rather then the synchroized rythmns we are used to.  And ending with the sentence of death in the end of the Rondo.

The Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 was another piece that had a very driving feel to it.  Throughout there was this sense of something to come, from the opening brass fanfare to the picking of the strings, with the undertones of the timpani or bass providing underlying beat in the more delicate passages.  And the last movement delivered on that promise of a powerful conclusion.

But with all this, the Beethoven Concerto No. 2 for Piano seemed out of place.  Unlike the other pieces, there was not this sense of purpose or drive.  No being swept up in the raging river of fate, no grand vistas or pastoral fields.  It is pretty, with passages bordering on beautiful.  But when it is bookended by "The Confession" and Tsaikovsy’s Forth, it comes across as merely nice (ask an unattached single adult for just what this implies) in a room of the great.

After the concert, Alsop had a talkback downstairs.  She was very engaging during the question and answer period.  I was impressed.  As an audience, we are probably somewhat hesitant, not getting much tougher than asking about her being one of the few women at her level.  But to her credit, she has something to say artistically, and she took her chance to speak.  She talked about taking "The Confession" as a warning of the types of society that would shun and prosecute those with different voices.  Her making artistic choices on how the pieces are presenting, including the practical, physical adjustments that this entailed.  Frank acknowledgements of elements of the Thursday performance that required adjustements before Friday night. And it makes the artistic process something we could see and understand, so that maybe we are not just an audience that is being entertained, but witnessing an artistic performance.  I could only imagine what it would be like to get a steady diet of this, and being in an audience that can see these adjustments and take part in this give and take with a cultural institutions artistic direction over time.

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