Opening night at Heinz Hall with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Manfred Honeck, conductor, and Yuja Wang, piano was a treat I have been looking forward to, and now it was a reality. As always, Honeck opens with “The Star-Spangled Banner by John Stafford Smith.” Isn’t it ironic to have an Austrian born and raised maestro conduct our distinctly American theme here in our country before our distinctly American audience? Liberty and individualism works for everyone, the whole world over, when it is embraced and adored as it is so very much here. Thank you Manfred Honeck for conducting this piece with such enthusiasm.
Before that, Music Director Honeck was welcomed with such enthusiastic applause, he even mentioned it himself, and that he was looking forward to making wonderful music.
Michael Gandolfi: Garden of Cosmic Speculation. As Mr. Gandolfi personally described to the audience himself this evening, his selections were meant to be played in any order, as if when one is visiting this garden in Scotland, one might visit in any order, whatever happens to be the sequence. This evening this piece was presented in 4 parts, and the sequence seemed just right.
It opened with “The Universe Cascade” – as I speculated, I envisioned an entire day at a garden buzzing with bees and insects, only the audio of this day was fast forwarded to extreme high speed, collapsing that entirety to only a few bars into a relative quiet scene where I speculated that the evening had arrived, and now the tempo reverted to a realistic pace. Soon I thought I heard a very brief glimpse of a suite from Bach, but then the garden reappeared, then again the patchwork quilt of natural sounds became a symphony by Beethoven, was I imagining this? The whole time a bell was ringing, perhaps a sound from a nearby village, or else the sound of a jay singing as the bird flies from limb to limb around the garden.
The Second movement “The Willow Twist” brought before my ears a suspenseful chase scene, one that could easily be used in any adventure movie, like a James Bond action sequence. But then there were birds chirping.
Next came “The Quark Walk” as if a disturbance in the force, and I quickly speculated that this movement represented lightning, thunder and rain. The bell was the lightning, the drum played a marvelous thunder rumbling sound, and the rain was represented by the piano and the whole rest of the orchestra following suit. I thought that this was one of the best representations of a rain shower that I have experienced, not a huge storm, but a simple garden shower.
Finally came the last selection titled: “Gigue (vision) /Chorale (the sixth sense: intuition).” At first it was spirited then slow, and I had an impression of sacred music, yet naturally blended with the sounds and feel of nature, again including the sounds of birds.
The whole while I was watching Manfred Honeck conduct this new piece, one that I’ve never heard before, and seeing the way that he directed the orchestra to synchronously illuminate in real time this marvelous medley of movements, in no specific order; I was speculating, yes, a cosmic speculation, as to the nature of classical music and how we ascribe themes as such to the music we hear. It’s fascinating to contemplate the various metaphors of life that music conjures forth before our eyes whence the music flows through our ears and into the garden of our brains via our very souls.
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini played by Yuja Wang, piano. This was truly the highlight of the evening. Lovely Miss Wang brought sounds and technique together in what was indeed a rhapsody, it can’t be described any better than that. This piece is one of my favorites, but in the depths of Heinz Hall before a live audience and with a wonderful orchestra to bring out the multiple dimensions of music unable to be experienced except first had, I relished this unique adventure.
The first part explores the extent into which a great composer as Rachmaninoff can take a simple theme, and develop it to an extent that seems beyond what is possible. Just when you think there’s nothing else that can be done with the simple and somewhat macabre melody, one more theme and extension to the developed ensemble of themes comes forth and amazes even more. I blogged last time about development, the kind that has always been the very best from Beethoven. Thus the juxtaposition of Rachmaninoff and Beethoven, and these two pieces together in one program seems to be the perfect fit.
When the next movement comes up suddenly, I imagine this isn’t anything at all like the rest, it’s a romantic melody that seems pure Rachmaninoff, yet he has fit it right there smack dab in the middle of this piece, and it seems to fit well.
Finally the ending: It’s got the same kind of energy and inventiveness as we are used to from Beethoven, yet again inventing more ways to evoke perhaps a new theme and the original melody over and over to a wonderful and spirited conclusion.
After intermission we’re treated to what else but Beethoven’s 5th. The first movement’s tempo was a bit fast, but it was played in such a perfect fashion, how can I complain. Honeck had no score before him, I can only assume that this oft played symphony is perfectly ingrained in his mind, as it is mine, I’ve heard it so often.
I really liked the Scherzo which showed off the talents of all of the sections of the PSO. We hear Bass and Cellos start, as if in a race which is being commenced by conductor Honeck. He next points to the Violas and they start their section of the race, next he glances towards the Violins, then to the rest of the orchestra, and this game goes on and on, in a truly interesting manner which brings a smile.
And of course the final movement. I can’t help myself, every time I hear it in my car, I’m singing along. But how can one sing along to the final movement of this symphony: Easy, when you love the music as much as I. So now I have to needlessly restrain myself, the nervous energy seems too much, it’s almost torture. So I simply imagine the accompaniment in my mind and tap as much as I can get away with with my leg. This movement seems to have the longest finale of all time. Just when you think it might be coming to a close, it reinvents itself one more time and goes on and on. I want it to never end, yet at the same time I feel it must. Eventually it does, and the applause, as it was for Miss Wang earlier, was beyond compare.
After the concert was over we were treated to a post-concert talk with Yuja Wang, which I’ll save for later.