Last weekend the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra presented to us an as-yet unfamiliar name in the classical music world — 27-year-old Israeli conductor Lahav Shani. Shani, who is the incoming principal guest conductor of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and the succeeding main conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, conducted the entire evening without a score. With his exceptional performance and debut with the Pittsburgh Symphony, I think he will soon be a familiar face to U.S. concertgoers.
The evening opened with Ives’ “The Unanswered Question,” which seemed unanswered for the entirety of the performance. The strings opened with one of the most intense pianissimos ever achieved, even from a seat only a few rows from the strings. The strings’ pianissimo throughout never changed tempo —representing the “Silence of the Druids — Who Know, See and Hear Nothing.” The trumpet intones “The Perennial Question of Existence,” (which Pittsburgh Symphony trumpet player Charles Lirette demonstrated to the front rows before the concert began), and states it in the same tone of voice each time.
The symphony and Maestro Shani introduced to many Kurt Weill’s Symphony No. 2 after the Ives. Shani impressed here also, as he conducted this rarely-performed work from memory also. The symphony has three movements — the funeral march introduction, which seemed to anticipate the second movement rather than the first. This is very much Mahler-esque, but quickly turned to the lucid and flowing style of Mozart. The second movement, relaxed somewhat, draws more from Bruckner influences than Mahler. The third movement juxtaposes joy with parody.
The main highlight came in the second half with pianist Jon Kimura Parker playing Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” and the orchestra guiding us through Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story.” The minute Parker entered the stage, Heinz Hall’s atmosphere seemed to change into a living room, as we all gathered eagerly to hear Parker dazzle us with the famous “Rhapsody in Blue.” He was smiling the entire time, which had everyone smiling as well, showing us what a positive influence music can have on those who enjoy it. His encore was “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” by Billy Joel, which was a nice contrast to the standard encore.
The Pittsburgh Symphony and Shani delighted the audience with Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances. This piece holds popular jazz and dance rhythms (swing, mambo, cha-cha) and just about every kind of syncopation out there. Eventually, the ear begins to make the connection between the Jets’ whistled salute (the first thing you hear) and the Maria motif.
The Pittsburgh Symphony and Shani played a lively encore for us by Leroy Anderson called “Fiddle-Faddle,” which left the crowd smiling once again.