This past Friday, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra opened another year of the Mellon Grand Classics, and for me, it was a little like going back to school. Watching the musicians come back for another season reminded me of students unpacking their bags and moving into the dormitory for another year, all the while greeting friends they hadn’t seen for many weeks, sharing stories of their summers, and looking eager to play again. There was a palpable anticipation.
The joy of reuniting was expressed in the music making. It was evening full of humor, beginning with Corigliano’s playful Promenade Overture, which began with Maestro Tortelier running onto a nearly empty stage (only the percussion were playing). The conductor was shoeless (really) and without his tails, and played the role of being frazzled and late perfectly. His shoes and coat were brought to him, and after hurriedly donning them, he jumped to the podium to give a dramatic downbeat that brought a snap from the percussion followed by an offstage fanfare from the brass. The fanfare, we are told in the program notes, are the last few measures of Haydn’s "Farewell" Symphony played in reverse, and having heard both pieces, and I think the reverse version sounded quite challenging, but the PSO brass handled it nimbly. Next, Rhian Kenny marched to her seat playing a solo piccolo line that was then repeated by the other sections of the orchestra as each made their entrance and took their seats. The final joke came from Craig Knox, running from stage right to stage left on only moments before the end of the piece and adding a few definitive notes from his tuba to end the work. I would bet that most of the audience has never heard this piece before, but it was crowd-pleaser nonetheless, and fun way to kick off a new year.
During the intermission (the hall was packed, by the way), piano soloist Alexander Toradze signed CDs and programs in the lobby, and the mood was jovial. He was racing down the line as intermission came to end, trying to get to everyone who came out to hear him, and those people in turn darted back to their seats as the lights were going down.
The second half featured Symphony Fantasique by Berlioz, and though I’ve heard the work many, many times, I’ve never heard it played live by the PSO, and it was a thrill. Tortelier’s handling of the often heard "March to the Scaffold" was brilliant, dramatic, and exciting, and it felt new.
Working behind the scenes of any business can be disillusioning, and Friday was certainly a long day, but I walked out of the hall feeling refreshed, and my wife and I discussed the concert during most of the car ride home, each of us intrigued by different moments but taking away the same general contentment of an evening well spent.
It even made Monday morning seem a little less daunting.