Strauss, Mozart and Beethoven – David DeAngelo

Outside, the Pirates were beating the Reds.  Inside, the PSO was playing the heck out of three masterworks; Tod und Verklärung of Richard Strauss, The D-minor Piano Concerto (with Yefim Bronfman, soloist) by Mozart, and the Beethoven 7th Symphony.

Stunning.  Stunning performance.  From the first note to the last.  Just stunning.

It started with what must be be assumed was a subtle homage to both the musique concrete of the 20th century AND the Baroque canonical counterpoint of the Renaissance.  Here's what happened: The audio of WQED's Jim Cunningham announcing to the audience to turn off their cell phones was played twice, with one "voice" over-lapping the other at an interval of a second or so – an electronic two voice canon at the unison!

Impressive.  Eclectic.  And kinda subversive, in an Edgard Varèse sort of way.

Then Violist Penny Brill came out and made a brief speech thanking the audience for its support this season and announcing that since the seating arrangements for the symphony had shifted and the violas were now deeply embedded in the middle of the stage, "This is probably the last you'll see of the violas, tonight," she lamented.  Violas, like Rodney Dangerfield, don't get no respect.  They're the Jan Bradys of the string section.  Perhaps of the whole orchestra.

On to the music.

Strauss described the "program" of Tod und Verklärung in a letter to his friend Frederick von Hausegger:

The idea occurred to me to represent the death of a person who had striven for the highest ideal goals, therefore very possibly an artist, in a tone poem. The sick man lies in bed asleep, breathing heavily and irregularly; agreeable dreams charm a smile onto his features in spite of his suffering; his sleep becomes lighter; he wakens; once again he is racked by terrible pain, his limbs shake with fever—as the attack draws to a close and the pain subsides he reflects on his past life, his childhood passes before him, his youth with its striving, its passions, and then, while pain resumes, the fruit of his path appears to him, the idea, the Ideal which he has tried to realize, to represent in his art, but which he has been unable to perfect, because it was not for any human being to perfect it. The hour of death approaches, the soul leaves the body, in order to find perfected in the most glorious form in the eternal cosmos that which he could not fulfill here on Earth.

With snippets of this description projected, mostly unnoticed, onto the two screens flanking the stage, the orchestra tuned and waited for Conductor Manfred Honeck.

And once upon the podium, baton in hand, hands raised, he began conducting.  It was stunning.  And when it was over, there was a lo-o-o-ng pause between when the orchestra ended and when Honeck's arms were lowered.  A moment of silence for "the artist" departed.  A sign of respect for the dead.

While we might think that such a piece would be depressing, we should remember that while he struggles, the artist only does so when alive.  Once his death comes and his transformation begins, the tone of the piece shifts.  The soul reunites with the Cosmos, with Schopenhauer's Will. The struggle is over, only eternal peace remains.  A most comforting thought when contemplating the passing of loved ones.

And Strauss wrote it down at 25.

The Mozart that followed, with Yefim Bronfman as soloist, was a joy.  Clear, precise.  Nuanced as only Mozart can be.  Bronfman encored (unannounced) with a movement from the second piano sonata of Sergei Prokofiev. 

Don't be impressed that I wrote that.  During intermission I had to track down Jim Cunningham to find out what Bronfman played.  But when he saw me, the first thing out of his mouth was, "So, did you know what that encore was?"  I had to admit that I was going to ask him the same thing.  Jim guessed Prokofiev.  I guessed, um, someone else entirely.  Luckily, calls were placed, queries made and answers given (thanks Nicole!). 

It was Prokofiev.  Opus 14, in D-minor.  Turns out it was the scherzo.  Not kidding.

There is little in the symphonic repertoire more exuberant than the Beethoven 7.  Kanny of the Trib raved:

Honeck's interpretation of Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 was as bold, detailed and imaginative as one hopes a music director's will be. The music is rhythmic and energetic, unless badly done, but Honeck's vitality was exceptional.

While Druckenbrod gushed:

…such was the vigor and energy that Honeck called for in every measure, from potent orchestra hits of the introduction to the rousing gallop to the end.

An amazing performance.  Followed by more exuberance in an encore: The last movement of the Haydn Symphony 88.  I found myself humming along.  I thought I was quiet but I learned with a quick but gentle jab to my ribs that my wife thought otherwise.

I stopped humming along.

Great performance, great music.  Not so great humming.

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