Concert Blog: I Know You, We’ve Met Before

Meet the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. 100+ of the finest musicians with skills beyond compare.
Tonight they are assembled before us, getting ready to play three selections old and new. They amble in one by one, and begin to warm up.

As I approach my seat I see Charles Lirette, co-principal trumpet, again in the audience showing off what appears to my untrained eye to be a very fine looking fanfare horn. He plays a riff for the folks nearby. Then he graciously poses for a picture. You can see his formal attire, donned as always with tuxedo and bow tie. Even under the poor illumination below the stage he could have been taken as a dignitary or politician, but to me the part he plays here is much more important. His profession being a musician and purveyor of great music. He and the other musicians return to the stage as soon as it becomes time to begin; the lights dim, and hushed sounds come over the hall.

Conductor Manfred Honeck abruptly appears; he strides energetically to the center stage and bows before us. He dons his trademark lighthearted smile and with one purpose instantly ascends the podium, raises his baton, the very apotheosis of his art, and begins. We hear the first few notes of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony.

At this point I must confess, I really like Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony. So is this perhaps my favorite symphony? We shall see. So let me try to express this with a mathematical metaphor of sorts.

It seems to me that if one were to divide fervour (how much one likes the music), by duration (how long is the symphony), one would be given a ‘measure‘ of one’s favorite symphony.  I call this new measure the ‘Fervour Quotient‘ (TM).

Beethoven’s Choral, Brahm’s First, Mahler’s Titan – all symphonies I love, their fervour is great, but when divided by their duration, the Fervour Quotient isn’t  exactly meteoric.

Many  of Mozart’s symphonies, Hyden too, I attribute a splendid fervour divided by a unary duration, (‘unary’ because I’ve normalized the duration to theirs) and thus one gets a Fervour Quotient exceedingly cosmic.

But now we get to Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, It too begins with a glorious fervour-numerator, and further dividing it by such a small denominator where the duration is so very minuscule, we find that this four movement masterpiece becomes a celestial supernova, burning so bright, and extinguishing so young, almost before it has begun.

The favorite symphony by this measure would perhaps be this one, based on the newly coined ‘Fervour Quotient‘ (patent-pending). And don’t forget, quoting Shakespeare: “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Prokofiev wins on that too, with his concise notes and delivery.

If I could transport back in time, with a time mechanism that someone from the future may lend to me today (or tomorrow), then I’d listen to these pieces at their onset, and perhaps I’d adjust my formula, giving more credence to the temporal quandrums existent in dreams imagined back then, but yet to be shepherded into universal reality today.

With all these words perhaps I’ve conveyed the idea that I like this symphony, and perhaps, at the very least, I’ve even convinced myself that it’s my favorite. But moving on.

The ‘new’ piece comes next. It’s unique, I’ve never heard a Percussion concerto before. James MacMillan’s creation, called “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel” was explained to us in great detail in the pre-concert talk by the composer himself, along with soloist Colin Currie. Both are originally from Scotland. It was interesting and fun listening to their accents. In a short introductory film before the concert, Lorna McGhee said it was a great relief to hear someone speaking ‘normally,’ so I guess to them we are the ones with the accents.

The pre-concert talk one hour before the concert was descriptive and illuminating. For instance, the Gregorian chant from which the melody was used as the base for his creative development was characterized as a didactic rhythm, a heart beat or a pulse of life in a sense. And his inspiration became sort of a humanity of the divine in music as it were. I took so many notes, so quickly, It’s hard to piece them together, but what I can say is, based on what they were saying, I only got an overall sense of the concert, and when I actually heard it, I experienced something seemingly bigger, broader, with much more modernity and definitely much more alive. I can say it was much different than I expected. What I liked most was the drums, Colin’s ability was astounding. You can see in the picture the setup, there were so many percussion pieces, it was hard to take it all in. Currie was moving briskly back and forth to the sets of instruments, drums on the left and xylophones and others on the right.

What would be really cool would be to hear the concert several more times. Once with just the percussion, another time with just the orchestra, and then finally bring it all together again. That way I could get a better sense of the pieces. As it was they seem to fight each other, and occasionally they came together in unison, but it wasn’t easy to partition in my mind. Perhaps more familiarity with the concert would give resolution to my conundrum. But all in all I enjoyed this new (to me) concert very much (first written in 1992).

Ah, now to the ‘magic’ portion of our show. After intermission we were treated to Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty suite. I’m familiar with most of the parts, but there were some played here tonight I’ve only now heard for the first time. It’s another confession of sorts to say that I remember this best in the Disney movie of the same name when I grew up. And even more so when my daughter grew up, we had it on VHS tape, and later I got a version on DVD. We watched it together so many times, I know the music almost by heart, and it definitely brings back great memories. So I just sat back, listened intently, and let the memories roll on.

Most of the music of Sleeping Beauty is just as magical as I recall, and more so, here in a live setting. But there’s one scene/movement in particular that I really like, I don’t know the name in French, but in the movie soundtrack it is called ‘Aurora’a Return/Maleficent’s Evil Spell’. I recall it being more syncopated in development and longer in duration. Don’t get me wrong, it’s got that certain feel, but I guess my memory has expanded it in scope somewhat. I wonder if composers, when they first hear the music in their minds, perhaps envision something far better than what they actually create in concrete musical terms…?

Finally another encore announced by Manfred Honeck. This time another piece by Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet, Death of Tybalt. Now what a wonderful selection! It was full of power with a rapid tempo and plenty of those sumptuous strings I’m always craving.

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