Ever since the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra returned from its European world tour, summer has settled in and decided to stay in the city of Pittsburgh. Surrounding Heinz Hall is a frenzy of frenetic activity. From the heavy winds to the smell of too much ketchup to the buzz of the Three Rivers Arts Festival, the Orchestra’s meditative weekend of the BNY Mellon Grand Classics series provides you with a welcomed opportunity to pause, listen and wonder.
You begin your journey in Russia with Sergei Prokofiev’s musical biography of the mythical Lieutenant Kijé. His birth is more like a marching hymn to a very recognizable bugle call. From the sounds of the drum roll, he’s born for war. The Lieutenant’s romance, however, is far from triumphant. You are surrounded by an immediate sense of sadness, almost like a cry from Hamlet’s Ophelia. But then it’s a party! Kijé’s wedding, filled with boisterous energy, is quickly a cause for celebration. In the next movement, the intentional sleigh bell sounds move you toward the beginning of the end. Kijé’s burial, much like his birth, signifies a marching hymn, although his final one. It seems as though the entire orchestra sunk ever so slightly in their seats to acknowledge the weight of death. You endure a range of emotions in a span of 20 minutes — from victorious to sadness to smallness to purposeful and everything in between.
Next you travel south of the border in Aaron Copland’s El Salón México. While this piece starts off subdued and whimsical, the melodies become as animated as the characters Copland probably met during his travels to Mexico. The entire orchestra is unified, dancing melodically with each other through the music. Its final crescendo has the audience cheering for more.
After a brief intermission, you begin your great odyssey through space. In John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine, you are mesmerized by the fantastical blend of your senses. The HD screen lowers from the sky, and you are launched through the atmosphere at lightning speed. While this short piece is only five minutes in length, its constant woodblock and marking of the beat is an impressive, borderline chaotic, backdrop to your rocket ride.
Finally, Richard Strass creates a full orchestral expression in Also sprach Zarathustra, Opus 30. As you find yourself mesmerized by the beauty of it all – the stillness between notes and the struggle between Nature and Fate – you question your minuscule existence as you float along to the angelic melody. The expansive movement creates swells within you. You question the duality between light and dark, percussion and strings, calm and chaos. The bi-tonality creates palpable tension and unrest in you, and you take notice.
Earth. What a breathtaking force to be reckoned with.
Giancarlo Guerrero, the night’s animated conductor, makes his debut this season at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, commanding the stage and captivating your attention. His deliberate eyebrows and wide range of facial expressions bring forth a passion and zeal to the evening and Hall that is a pleasure to experience.