Spiritual. Pulchritudinous. Sublime. Angelic. Ethereal. Intellectual. Those words can only touch the colorful and rhythmic evening the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, renowned percussion soloist, Dame Evelyn Glennie, Composer of the Year Steven Stucky, and guest Slovakian conductor Juraj Valčuha offered to the audience in Heinz Hall on Friday evening.
‘Once upon a time…’Ravel’s Suite from “Mother Goose” (1908 for piano, orchestrated 1911) led confidently, and elegantly with such precision by Mr. Valčuha opened the evening of music. The “Mother Goose” suite comprises the five orchestrated movements of Ravel’s original piano version. From the strings, came plucking, ever so faint; a delicate cascading whisper. The gorgeous fairy tale aspect Ravel created filled my being with such magical contentment. Each movement had the power to transport me to little magical worlds. In the “Conversations of Beauty and the Beast”, the high woodwinds represent the words of the Beauty, while the Beast is portrayed by PSO Principal Contrabassoonist, James Rodgers. Back and forth the two play as if in conversation, but upon being promised to one another the Beauty and the Beast are combined as if they are one, and finally, the Beast’s (James Rodgers) theme succumbs to the ethereal heights of beauty from Beauty (Concertmaster, Noah Bendix-Balgley) through the chillingly gorgeous violin solo. At the execution of the piece the conductor recognized the soloists for their wonderful portrayals.
Ravel’s work, full of many colors and tones was a wonderful choice before Steven Stucky’s “Spirit Voices”, Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra (2003).
Famed percussion soloist, Evelyn Glennie presented Stucky’s work in a very dramatic, yet musically virtuosic way. Spirit Voices is described by the composer as an “inspiration from the diversity of spirits and other supernatural forces from cultures around the world who manifest their presence through sound.” That description sums up the concerto perfectly, as that is exactly what you as the audience would take away from it. I am not quite certain how to approach my perspective on this work, as it was different to say the least and perplexed me. The concerto was not how you would think of a piano or violin concerto, where the soloist is mainly “it”. This percussion concerto was a partnership between Glennie and the orchestra, swaying back and forth. The concerto was full of an array of colors and emotional landscapes. The mood changed so rapidly.
Glennie, dramatically and “spiritually” entering and inhabiting the stage began vocalizing (more like shrieking) in what I perceived to be representing some supernatural being or feeling. The shrieks almost sounded as if she [Glennie] was summoning one of the seven voices from the spirit realms. The “summoning”, introduced Glennie’s frantic cadenza, with the orchestra unpredictably entering. Mythical. The many different percussion instruments Glennie played of course were the reason to the atmospheric picture painted. Glennie, played quite a physical role as she flitted, danced, and strode around the stage to each of the “stations” of her instruments. The dramatic work ended, so fittingly for a postlude to what our ears were just introduced. The ending was complete silence. The vibrations from the concerto vibrated off your body and the hall during the silence.
For what seemed like an eternity (in actuality about one minute) the orchestra, soloist, and audience (amidst the coughing) froze and not a clap of the hands was uttered. It was a sacred, spiritual, and an exceedingly fitting end to “Spirit Voices”.
The PSO and guest conductor Juraj Valčuha closed the colorful and rhythmic evening with the ever-so-popular Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances”. You will fall in love with this piece from your first hearing, and when you hear it again it will be love at first hearing again. The Dances were magnificent, breathtaking melodies from the strings. The melodies spoke to me as Barber’s Adagio for Strings captivates you with its message. Although the exquisite melodies I have reference to were brief in their presence, they were lovely with the recurring theme.
What adjectives are worthy enough to describe the depth, meaning, and overall sophistication of this work? The concertmaster’s brief, yet entrancing solos held perfection from conception to living to execution of each and every note. Every molecule of precision was present. I simply marvel in awe at the way composers tie in melodies. What a complex, unimaginable feat to attain. When I analyze the music, which is easy to do because the PSO is representing the music, I can simply not take in all of the intricacies. One almost needs to a see a performance three times, for only after a concert, we reflect on what we took away, individually. One needs to get a second and third impression to have all thoughts present at once to appreciate and grasp the true magic intricately woven in the music.
Another blog to come on the post-concert performance of Steven Stucky’s “Nell’Ombra Nella Luce”, given by the Starling Honors Quartet, Carnegie Mellon University.