Sarah Chang and the PSO
“Music can name the unnamable and communicate the unknowable.”
― Leonard Bernstein
I think it appropriate to start off with a quote from Bernstein as violinist Sarah Chang, conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier, and our Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra played Bernstein’s West Side Story for Violin and Orchestra (Arr. & Adpt. David Newman).
I was overly psyched for this popular concert the PSO would be presenting when I heard that West Side Story would be on the program! I had known about this performance Chang would present since this past August, when I saw Chang and musicians of the PSO perform at The Advanced Chamber Music Seminar at Shadyside Academy that I had attended.
Now, before delving into the enchantments and thrill of West Side Story, I shall tell of Morton Gould’s Spirituals for Orchestra and Conductor, Yan Pascal Tortelier’s welcoming introduction…
As Yan Pascal Tortelier entered the stage coming into ecstatic applause he told of a short story on how he came to choose Morton Gould’s piece for the opening of this splendid program. I could never get across the full charm and details he put into his story, for I was so fixed on him I forgot to take notes on this part and from what I do remember could not reproduce the story justice. But, it is always a joy when the conductor invites you in on the musical journey by connecting with the audience as he did. His great sense of humor and personality could not have been more evident and well received through his phenomenal conducting skills and warm intro.
Gould wrote of his Spirituals for Orchestra, ”My starting premise was that our spirituals develop a wide gamut of emotions, musically. These emotions are specifically American. The songs ranged from strictly spiritual ones that are escapist in feeling, or light and gay, to those having tremendous depth and tragic impact. My idea was to get five moods, widely contrasted in feeling. Although most of the work is original as far as thematic material goes, I have used fragments of folk tunes here and there. The first movement (Proclamation) has a dramatic-religious intensity. The second movement (Sermon) is a simple narrative – a sort of lyrical folk tale. The third movement (A Little Bit of Sin) is humorous and good-natured. The fourth movement (Protest) is bitter, grim and crying-out. The last movement (Jubilee) is a festive and dance-like piece.” I have never heard this piece before, and it is always fun to add a new work to your favorite list where this one certainly earned a place.
Yan Pascal Tortelier’s conducting was absolutely enjoyable to watch. He was so energetic and there is no other way to put this…his conducting “dancing” was graceful like a swan at times. I am not always fixed so much on the conductor, but I was this time.
Sarah Chang was at her best with the West Side Story arrangement for her by David Newman. There is a star quality about Chang that simply cannot be denied. There was much space made for Chang’s “dance number” as the PSO repositioned their seating a bit—shifting back as a section. Chang, know for her choreography and drastic moves, i.e. leg kicking, and bow swinging, hair flipping, body lurching forward and back. I feel this type of expression is out of character for the Bruch Concerto, but all her choreography fit this showy arrangement (seeming to let every instrument in the orchestra speak) of West Side Story. Yes, at times I confess, I thought the moves a little “out there”, but going past the exterior to the heart of the evocative and very enjoyable performance we are met with skill and beauty ever-present through the PSO, Chang and Tortelier. Newman composed a brief duet between the soloist and the concertmaster, which was sweet. I thought the applause Chang received was worthy an encore, yet none followed. Still, all in all, very enjoyable!
Concluding the evening, was the very passionate Sibelius Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Opus 39. A clarinet solo introduces the first movement. Then, the strings proclaim and seize the main theme — magnificent theme “very Sibelius” into a rhythmic flourish. Violins and cellos create the lyrical theme that comes next. The woodwinds come with the second theme, and the stern brass adds. The beautiful sweeping strokes and “fleshy” pizzicato from the strings mixed with the horns was nostalgic and bewitching to say the least. The harp had some lovely brief solos that brought to mind – moonlight, and mystical connotations. The concertmaster had a solo, which he passed to the assistant concertmaster who finished gracefully. Principle Cellist, Anne Martindale-Williams also had brief solos, producing a tone all string players would be envious of. The piece ended victoriously as the audience broke into fierce yet appreciative applause.