Saturday night’s concert had a treat. Two modern pieces, including a world premiere written by Theofanidis with the performer the piece was written for as the soloist. And the Rachmaninoff symphony to provide more traditional meat in the second half of the program. One of the things I like about going to the Pittsburgh Symphony is the composer in residence program. As much as I enjoy concert music, I am not versed enough to be looking for new music myself. And frankly, the sheer volume of new material is daunting to wade through and separate the wheat from the chaff. Classics are called "classics" for a reason, they have been filtered through the ages and on several different generations of review, they have a certain level of quality. The newer concert works do not have that, and for someone like me who sometimes enjoys the modern works, it is nice to have a filter. In the literary arts this is an editor. But for concert music, I take advantage of having the Pittsburgh Symphony bringing in composers and giving them space to work.
I’ve never seen (or heard) Nixon in China. But listening to John Adams The Chairman Dances I could almost see a plot. The first part with the buzz of activity growing as various parts are preparing for the historic occasion. The switch to a more melodic middle during the event itself (and maybe a flashback scene along the way?). And the event ends with slowly diminishing activity, until all goes quiet. Now, granted, I just made all that up, but the story in the music was so strong, the composer and orchestra almost seemed to deserve listener imagination of a story. Hearing Theofanidis give a pre-performance talk before his Concerto for Violin and Orchestra was performed. (I was trying to arrive in time for the pre-concert talk, but traffic was a bear.) I remember a talk of his when he was the PSO Composer of the Year and it was a treat to hear it again. There are not that many opportunities to have an artist talk about the creative process, especially when those that would perform the piece (orchestra and soloist) were providing feedback while the piece was being composed. The whole process is that much more alive then the idea of a composer writing the work, then passing on to an orchestra, conductor and soloist to do what they will. Last year, we had the pleasure of John Corigliano and Joshua Bell being present for the Red Violin Concerto and having both of them talk about how they worked together and what the piece was meant for made the experience richer.
There are many reasons to go to symphonic concerts in person. Part of it is to hear the music in a richer form than would be possible off of recordings in the comfort of home, both because of the acoustics and the uniqueness of the interpretation that always happens with a different combination of performer, conductor, setting and audience. There is the beauty and elegance of the setting (ok, I’m not an expert here). And there is the witnessing of the culmination of a creative process that starts with a spark or theme in a composers head, then gets marinated, developed and refined over time and contact. And the Composer of the Year program at the PSO gives us a window into this.