From the depths of deeply vibrant strings to an arduously congruous ascent toward the light, the three pieces of music presented by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra with Conductor Xian Zhang and solo violinist Xiang Yu were a surprising and breathtaking journey to say the least.
The PSO program began Friday evening with Steven Stucky, entering stage right, to discuss ‘Radical Light’ a 17 minute composition. In his words (paraphrasing): “I’m responsible for what’s about to happen to you. The genre of this composition would be called a tone poem – it sounds hopelessly old fashioned, but that’s the best way to describe it. It’s a journey, not a symphony or something else, it has a kind of emotional journey, climax or feeling of rise and fall, not technical, theoretical or about skill, but the feelings – the string sound, a sparkly sphere, a marvelous slow movement, and finally reaching for the light. By the time we get to the end of the journey we will have reached as far as we can for the light.”
The journey begin with the strings, in a high pitched form of dissonance that seemed harsh or discordant, and I couldn’t discern the form of harmony. The sound was incomplete until the woodwinds joined to try to resolve the situation. I heard horns, then succeeding woodwinds juxtaposed in somewhat improper chord progression, one following another so that, each voice in turn sounded right, but their progressions seemed incongruous. Even so, the whole of the orchestration of these elements developed in an interesting, yet deceptive cadence. I also observed the xylophone and horns, and at one point a bell rang, then again the strings and next the orchestra making a sound as if an alien spacecraft were darting back and forth across the atmosphere. Then slow deep strings followed again by the high discordant strings, as if to drown out an increasing melodic tune like a marvel – it was a melodic ascension of 4 notes, then 5, reaching for the ultimate height.
Next we were treated to a marvelous performance of Prokofiev’s violin concerto with soloist Xiang Yu. The timber of Mr Yu’s violin was amazing – this I could hear from the outset, in fact, throughout the first movement I was struck by the use of the two lower strings of the violin in this concerto. Many concertos by other famous composers seem to stick to the higher frequencies of the upper two strings, but Prokofiev surprised me with his use of the deeper and richer notes that I often long for. I also observed some interesting changes in tempo and accented rhythm throughout. The slow movement was my favorite, seemingly in 3/4 time with flutes pushing a melody as the violin builds. At one point I couldn’t help but envision a death-star intruding on a butterfly. The final movement was a bouncing scraping fast metronome, with flourishes and flair, like a syncopated rain dance.
The encore was the best part of all coming from Mr. Yu, I believe it was Bach or based on a theme by Bach, but it was exquisite! Here we heard the lush deep tones of this marvelous violin, with amazing ability on display in a simple yet elegant solo.
After intermission came the truly magnificent Symphony No. 4 by Schumann with an orchestration by Mahler. Here the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra truly shines. Conductor Zhang was really good with this composition, she had no score before her, but knew every cadence, every part, every placement of accent and highlight, and she adroitly directed the orchestra with succinct movements of hands, showing clarity to the sections or individual voices. The third movement was loud and vivacious, melodic with plenty of orchestration. Three pounding notes interspersed by a softer intermezzo, with contrast between the two like the difference between a brusque baritone and a sweet soprano singing operatic counterpoint. The final movement brought a fitting conclusion to this wonderful symphony.