Friday’s concert at Heinz Hall for Performing Arts featured the brilliant Polish virtuoso Emanuel Ax in a performance of Brahms’ Concerto No.2 in B-flat major for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 83 and the Pittsburgh Symphony’s Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck who led the orchestra in works by Orff, Bernstein, Verdi and Boito in collaboration with the newly formed All University Choir.
Concert goers have eagerly looked forward to the grand appearance of Emanuel Ax and he has certainly lived up to the buildup and excitement thus far. Ax enchanted the audience with a superior rendition of the Brahms Concerto which, at 50 minutes is a task both mentally and physically for any pianist. The concerto opens with an efflorescent horn call answered by sweeping arpeggios from the piano. Ax delivered a lively, impressive opening showcased by his fantastic use of the sustaining pedal to bring out the huge chords in the left hand, together with a delicate fluency in the right hand which, already at this early point in the concerto shows the enormous technicalities the pianist is called upon to do.
The opening set the stage for a fantastic collaboration between piano and orchestra and they shared with us on a impressive scale. The focus was solely on Ax up until the beginning of the 3rd movement, which contains the warm and nuanced cello solo that principal cellist Anne Martindale-Williams embraced with all the care and purity that it deserves. She received special recognition at the end as Ax brought her to the stage to share in his bow and appreciation for the thunderous applause he received.
Ax’s playing was refined and thoughtful. This was particularly apparent during the finale which is a rondo and is marked Allegretto grazioso. He kept the unique structure of the four movement work honoring Brahms.
Ax did not disappoint his fans and thrilling the near capacity of Heinz Hall into what seemed never ending applause and appreciation.
The second half of the program featured the All University Choir from Chatham University, Stacey Brett Connor, conductor; Duquesne University, Caron Daley, conductor; Grove City College, Katherine Mueller, conductor; the St. Vincent Camerata, Steven Concordia, conductor; and Washington & Jefferson College, Susan Medley, conductor.
Manfred Honeck has a strong wish to work together with the many great Pittsburgh universities and formed a new ensemble just for this occasion, the All University Choir under the direction of Robert Page and Christine Hestwood. It featured music in equally grand proportions including the well-known “Fortuna imperatrix mundi” from Carmina Burana by Carl Orff, and less well-known works by Bernstein, “Chichester Psalms,” featured the 12-year-old boy soprano Maksim Shcherbatyuk. The choirs blended together seamlessly further engaging the audience at the skill of the young musicians collaborating with this world class orchestra.