Rachin’ with Beethoven

It’s my third season as a blogger for the PSO and I still can’t find my seats without consulting at least than two different ushers. At least they’re starting to know me now and I’m making friends. So there’s that.

I attended the performance with my aunt, making it the cornerstone of another lively girls’ night, with the promise of experiencing Beethoven’s legendary Fifth Symphony as the apex of our evening. As luck would have it, I found myself sitting next to fellow blog goddess Elizabeth Perry, and I was able to preview some of her sketches—mostly because I’m noisy and obnoxiously peered over her shoulder to admire. The woman is so talented.

First up was a little Michael Gandolfi to set the tone; I nearly leapt out of my seat when Gandolfi himself stepped on stage and gave the audience some insight into the background of his composition. It was so refreshing to actually hear the composer’s intentions and explanations. It eliminates the need for any annoyingly arbitrary guesswork about “hidden meanings” in the music… and I like that because I’m lazy. I also liked the selections from The Garden of Cosmic Speculation. (That is such a cool title.) It was so…eclectic. This is the only piece I have ever heard in which there are birds chirping, cosmic spaceship sound effects and traces of big band style—all within the same piece and all having been inspired by a crazy, magical garden in Scotland.

We then moved along to Serge Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on the Theme of Paganini, featuring Yuja Wang’s “superhuman command” of the piano. Ms. Wang’s breathtaking skill prompted me to snatch my aunt’s arm and exclaim, “How many fingers does this woman have?!” I apologize to the nice people sitting around us for my rowdiness.

If I am reading the program notes correctly, it looks like Rachmaninoff himself performed Paganini with the PSO in 1937. How amazing would it have been to watch Rachmaninoff play his own composition? And by the way, the drama queen in me loves the story upon which this is based. The idea that the legendary Nicolo Paganini sold his soul to an evil spirit in exchange for his phenomenal talent (and for a love interest as well, of course) is so deliciously scandalous….and I like that, too.

And finally…Beethoven’s legendary Fifth Symphony. Pittsburgh natives, you will appreciate this—this performance was kind of like the Thunderbolt roller coaster at Kennywood. Right out of the gate, the rider is mercilessly tossed down a steep hill, without any preamble, and the ride begins with exhilarating flourish and excitement. The Fifth was exactly the same; the most famous four notes in all of music reverberated throughout Heinz Hall suddenly and without warning. Again, I nearly leapt from my seat in excitement. (Perhaps I need to limit my pre-concert espresso intake?) As I’ve mentioned, this is my third season as a PSO blogger, but I can’t remember ever being so thrilled about a piece of music, and I’ve experienced some truly superior performances by the PSO. The Fifth is ubiquitous across cultures; even that annoying little girl from the Beethoven movies plays part of it. After having been inundated with a lifetime of bad imitations of the piece, it was marvelous to experience the real thing, as performed by the PSO and conducted by Honeck (heart him!!).

Good times were had by all. The Fifth definitely lived up to all of the hype, and Beethoven still presses my happy button…whatever that is.

4 thoughts on “Rachin’ with Beethoven”

  • I(Marlene)Jennifer’s aunt, attended my first visit to the symphony since I think I was in 6th grade, at that time not old enough to appreciate the musicians;/instruments, and excitement of the total aura. What a wonderful evening. Again thanks Jen. Love Aunt Mar

  • I have never heard the story about Paganini – thanks for the enlightenment! You have a very pleasant writing style – I hope to read more in the future.

  • No matter how many times you hear them, Beethoven’s symphonies never really lose their impact, especially if they’re well done. And it’s so easy to get carried away, with or without the espresso (though I always choose with). Once I was listening to Beethoven’s 9th while driving on 422, air conducting with wild abandon, when I looked down and realized I was going 85 miles per hour. “Sorry, officer, I was under the influence of Beethoven…”

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