Today I made this photo composition of a bunch of youthful looking mushrooms, small and delicate, reaching for the green canopy as warm summer transitions into autumn on this very colorful day. What was soon to await my journey was a trip to Heinz Hall to attend a concert with Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
Wandering into the lobby, I couldn’t help but contemplate the wonders I’d see and hear this season; someone I recognize asks: “How was your summer;” just fine, and yours?. Outside the water flows through shadowy blue light as patrons amble in the still warm night. Soon we were all inside the hall, seated and ready.
First up, an introduction by members of the orchestra who have contributed another $100,000 to the Annual Fund. Then Manfred Honeck enters and conducts the Star-Spangled Banner, and I and the audience sing the lyrics (was I one of only a few with their hands over their heart?).
Two different compositions by Richard Strauss are presented one after the other. They couldn’t be more different. The first, a horn concerto, perhaps written because his father, Franz Strauss, was a fabulous horn player of the Munich Court Orchestra. William Caballero, of the PSO, played this sublime composition with the utmost ability. I particularly liked this piece because it was of a classical style, and because this music does not overwhelm my hearing with decibels more volume than I typically prefer – indeed the music was exquisite in it’s beauty, simplicity and subtlety. The tones were pure, wrapped by a symphonic harmony – all in all this seldom heard concerto is something worth hearing, more than once.
The second selection by Strauss was a set of 4 orchestral songs sung by baritone Thomas Hampson. Mr. Hampson’s voice and manner combined to provide a very entertaining genre – his facial expressions and arm movements gave the performance a very heart-felt appeal. The composition itself, set to texts by prolific German poets and writers was backed by the typical music of Strauss that one would expect, especially with the orchestration provided by Honeck and the PSO.
While listening, my mind thought more deeply about the contrast between these two compositions. The first, written while at home with his father Franz in 1887, has a distinctly classical style. The second was written 9 years later while on his own, and has a significant romantic feel, a signature Richard Strauss sound. I can only imagine what his father, if he was still around, would have thought.
After intermission came the Dvorak Symphony No. 9, “From the New World.” Instant energy is what I perceive, a plethora of abundant sound yet with a beat to make you tap your toes. After the completion of the first movement, with sudden complete silence, we hear only a single patron with a definite sense of ‘awe’ exclaim “WOW!” No other sound for milliseconds is heard, then spurrious laughing from the audience, and Manfred Honeck turns with a smile and shakes his head up and down “YES!” in total agreement. The audience applauds. ‘Wow’ is an understatement.
Perhaps this audience member has never heard this New World Symphony before, or perhaps it is
this live PSO performance that stirred his acclimation between
movements. I’ve heard it perhaps 40 times, and I still say wow!
All during the composition I observe Manfred Honeck and his conducting style: baton and left hand do most of the direction, with an occasional bump from his hips, a smile and a head-wave and then abundant sweeping of arms. Two fingers grip and his body does a revers bow, leaning backward preparing to renew his glance and nod toward the appropriate section of the orchestra. A motion of his arm, like a frisbee throw, then broadly level sweeping baton all across the orchestra sections as if to start a wave in motion, cause the gushing of notes and sound rippling across the concert hall. His finger and thumb gripped together, shaking and then brought forward, followed by his hands held low with flat hands palm up perhaps to indicate a change in volume or to commence and upward movement of crescendo. Now his arms roll together as if he is constructing an imaginary sphere which he magically encircles the stage with ebullient sounds, he raises his shoulders and slowly brings the tempo back down bending his knees. Pointing directly to individual musicians, he brings the trumpets to bear, and then finally, leans grandly back, readying for the final raising of his clenched fists to signal the grand finale of the first movement. Again – WOW!
Should I be embarrassed by the beauty of this composition – a resounding no.
After the final note was fell, and all the beauty was done, the entire audience got to their feet for a resounding standing ovation.