This evening my lovely wife and I braved the newly (though sadly temporary) mild Pittsburgh weather and made our way to Heinz Hall to hear Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conduct the PSO.
It was a lovely lasagna-fueled evening for the both of us.
First off, let me clear away all the barely necessary preliminaries: It was a very good concert – solidly well played with no bad news to report here at all. I only say that because Friday night, the PSO wasn't so lucky:
Everyone has a bad day at the office now and then, but for those whose workplace is in front of fans or audience members, it's harder to hide it.
Such was the case [Friday] night at Heinz Hall, when concertmaster Andrés Cárdenes never quite got on track in Lalo's "Symphonie Espagnole" and then in a shocker, lost his place in the final movement. That required the conductor, Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, to ask the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra to restart it.
P-G Music critic Andy Druckenbrod later on in the review gives Cárdenes the benefit of the doubt. I'd say Andy's got it exactly right here. I've heard Cárdenes play enough times to know he's an intelligent and steady musician with an agile technique and a full, powerful sound. Andy's right that everyone has a bad day. Friday night, Cárdenes had his. Tonight, he was completely on his game. Completely.
In his late 70s, Frühbeck de Burgos can certainly be a good candidate for the title of "old school conductor." Rather dapper in his White Tie and Tails (no Top Hat, sorry) with his white hair combed back from his forehead, he conducted old school Eurpoean with a baton roughly the length of a Louisville Slugger. To my ear it was an evening of solid, if not necessarily challenging, readings.
On the other hand I was surprised to see the order of the compositions. I would have thought that the weighty Beethoven would have gone last with the dashing Ravel somewhat earlier. My guess is that the idea behind this evening's program was that the crowdpleaser always goes on last and Bolero is nothing if not a crowd pleaser. Just ask Bo Derek.
Beethoven's so-called "Middle Period" symphonies tended to be composed in pairs. The 5th and 6th were composed somewhere between 1805-8 and premiered on the same day in 1808. The 7th and 8th were composed somewhere between 1811-12 and premiered within a couple of months of each other in late 1813 and early 1814. The 8th, by the way, was the last symphony Beethoven was to complete before the "Glorious" Ninth of 1824.
It's been said that the thing to remember about the composers of the first Vienese School (i.e. Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven) is that they were all opera composers at heart. Mozart's opera output is well-known, Haydn's, on the other hand, is less so. And Beethoven was always a composer hunting for the perfect libretto. Just look at how he worked and reworked Fidelio. The point, flawed as it may be, is that the three were very much interested in the drama that can be presented as music. It is this drama that Frühbeck de Burgos was able to present to us this evening. His Beethoven was clear and crisp without being fragile on the one hand or too muscle bound on the other. The recapitulation towards the end of the first movement was a particularly effective (and affective) moment. Old school rules, I guess.
For all his obvious compositional talents (and they are considerable) Edouard Lalo is no Beethoven. While certainly a strong composition, Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole comes off, when stood up next to the Beethoven symphony that preceeded it by 60 years, as something less. Less deep. Less complicated. Less interesting. Before we go any further, however, let me add that when Billy Ripkin (Cal's younger brother) was being heckled from the stands for not being as good a baseball player as his more famous brother, he reportedly responded, "Yea, but who is?" So Lalo isn't as good as Beethoven. But who is?
This was the piece that vexed Cárdenes and the PSO the night before. Tonight he was great. To his credit he made out of a good piece a great performance and deserved the standing ovation he got.
Ah, the crowdpleaser. A 17 minute long "experiment" (Ravel's description) where nothing much happens except the orchestration keeps getting thicker and the band keeps getting louder. The PSO handled this piece with great aplomb. By the end my ears were ringing and I feared I'd lost, permanently, some hearing. My wife feard that the snare drummers arms would fall off. This piece got a standing ovation as well.
I'm looking forward to hearing Carmina Burana next week.