Heinz Hall was near not nearly at full capacity on Friday night as one would have expected — the program boasted violinist Stefan Jackiw, who is a young artist establishing himself as one of his generation’s most significant and captivating violinists. Jackiw’s performance was phenomenal, of course — but his was only one of several performances that made Friday’s program especially rewarding.
Before Jackiw’s performance, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and Guest Conductor Juraj Valčuha opened the evening with the world premiere of Christopher Rouse’s Supplica— basically just a string piece but the brass did add a bit from time to time. The work was co-commissioned by Pacific Symphony in California as well. As a whole this work fit the evening’s program well, specifically in relation to the second half of the evening with Debussy’s La Mer and Ravel’s La Valse… It was surprisingly atonal for a contemporary work with its many lush melodies displayed by the strings. At points it felt “Brahmsy” to me due to the incredible passion it possessed. The sweeping melodies in the Rouse were a nice yet mysterious sense of the French compositions to come in the second half.
Rouse does not elaborate much on his composition. Of the little insight he shares he states this of Supplica and his Fourth Symphony, “I felt an inner compulsion to write both works, but both also possess meanings for me that must remain personal. This certainly does not mean that either piece is intended to be ‘impersonal’—rather that what I hope will be heard as both an intimate and an impassioned communication in sound must mean to each listener what it will, without further intercession or guidance from the me.”
Even though this piece wasn’t necessarily the most anticipated on the program, audience members cheered wildly at its conclusion, granting Rouse a well-deserved standing ovation. It was nice to see music lovers acknowledge this new work— even if they had primarily come to see someone else.
The cheers subsided and then rose again as Jackiw took the stage. After exchanging a few handshakes with members of the orchestra and giving the audience a grateful smile, Jackiw lifted his violin for Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor — the “heart’s jewel” — a name coined by violinist Joseph Joachim. Joachim, who a half-century after the work premiered said that the Germans had four great violin concertos: those of Beethoven, Brahms, Bruch and “the heart’s jewel” — Mendelssohn’s.
The sound was incredible. Watching Jackiw, it was immediately clear that the “buttery” tone he produced would positively infect the whole performance. Jackiw played tactfully and with ease, even producing a few series of notes that seemed unfathomably fast. In these moments, Jackiw proved himself a vivacious performer; he moved vigorously with the music, and he frequently bent and straightened his knees according to the tension in each phrase.
But really any violinist of his competence can play rapidly. The moments that set Jackiw apart as a musician occurred when the tempo slowed and allowed him time to bring out the artfulness in his playing. Jackiw managed to draw out every bit of zest from the notes he played, spontaneously playing around with the limits of ‘too much’ and perfection.
Subjectively speaking, Jackiw delivered Mendelssohn in a way that anyone could be convinced that the Mendelssohn really was the “heart’s jewel.”
Jackiw’s performance was not the end of the concert though. After the intermission, the orchestra took the stage for a performance of Debussy’s La Mer and Ravel’s La Valse. Jackiw’s was a difficult performance to “compete with,” but the orchestra’s performance(s) proved to be anything but ineffective.
The Pittsburgh Symphony’s renditions of the Debussy and Ravel were wonderful. The “Dialogue du vent et de la mer” in the Ravel showcased the orchestra’s polished dynamics. The orchestra worked together harmoniously.
The symphony closed with violist Paul Silver thanking the patrons of the Pittsburgh Symphony for their support, and Valčuha and the orchestra closed with an encore of thanks with Puccini’s Third act intermezzo from Manon Lescault.