Manfred Honeck conducted an unusually revealing and insightful performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony at Heinz Hall Friday night. The orchestra played with vibrant, brutal, gloomy, sarcastic, spiritual and mournful qualities. Again, Honeck is at the pinnacle of the art and mastery of his craft and perfects it each performance.
But, it was Yuja Wang’s mini-blood-orange-dress for which Friday night is likely to be remembered. The Chinese pianist, who opened the concert with Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, is 26 and already widely recognized as one of the most prestigious artists of her generation.
Some thought the mini-dress inappropriate for a symphonic concert, while others applauded the young musician for her personal style. I, for one, was quite distracted by Wang’s attire and had to close my eyes to truly listen and grasp the unfathomable beauty Tchaikovsky composed. Yes, music is a form of art as is Wang’s style of dress, but in my view, the clothing choice of the soloist, or lack of, can detract from the beauty of the music.
Yet, despite Wang’s attire, she is undoubtedly an artistically tasteful, technically impeccable, confident and extraordinary pianist. Wang is a true virtuoso and portrayed Tchaikovsky with much accuracy and authority, yet charmingly added a charismatic and fitting stamp of her own.
She was on the slow side for Tchaikovsky’s slow, lyrical melodies and on the fast side for the showy passages, but nothing was extreme. When Tchaikovsky called for delicacy, rapidity and elegance together, she had all three in exactly the right proportions and was unequivocally magical.
The opening of the concerto is one of the most famous melodies, but sadly only comes once and never comes back. One must cherish the opening, sweeping melody nobly sung by violins and cellos above thunderous chords from the piano. Following a decrescendo and a pause, the piano presents the snapping main theme.
Wang also, delighted the audience with an encore from Carmen, an arrangement on variations by Bizet and Horowitz. She actively displayed her joy of performing and the art of music making; that is what makes me as an audience member filled with joy also.
The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and Maestro Honeck’s performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth was as compelling, and as finely executed, as it could be. The playing of course was at a world class level and Honeck exhibited unusual care with pacing, proportion, dynamics and shape. The strings in the opening of the third movement (the center of the symphony) was overwhelming to me. I’ve played this symphony twice (2nd violinist both times) and playing it, and in this case listening to the opening by the 2nd violins, puts one in an otherworldly and ethereal state. The whole movement does with the silvery and eerie flute, oboe, and harp. The climaxes in the very beginning are like a wave enveloping the whole orchestra and audience. The crescendo represents the wave coming full force, and with the decrescendo the wave subsides for a moment. In certain moments the strings reminded me of the sacred qualities in Richard Wagner’s Prelude to Lohengrin Act I. Maestro Honeck then pushed the PSO into “planned chaos”, for a thrilling finale, emphasizing the blatant brutality and desperation of Shostakovich’s experiences in this work. Bravo, Timpanist, Edward Stephan for the immaculate “setting” of the beats at the end of the finale. Without the timpani the end of finale would just not “be”.
“In Shostakovich’s music, there is always something in the background,” Honeck says. “You can never trust that what he wrote doesn’t have a second or third meaning. The question for me is should we go with what is written, the official face, or go for what is underneath. In my opinion, it makes more sense that if Shostakovich wanted to hide something, then it’s better to lift the curtain and be open to the things which he really wanted to say.”
As if imitating Russian orchestras of old, brasses unleashed scorching assaults at climactic moments. Particularly distinguished solos came from Noah Bendix-Balgley (violin), Lorna McGhee (flute), Michael Rusinek (clarinet), Cynthia Koledo DeAlmeida (oboe), Nancy Goeres (bassoon) and William Caballero (horn).