Stucky, Gershwin, and Mussorgsky/Ravel

The lovely wife and I couldn’t pass up the chance to see the season opening concert of the PSO.  We were especially looking forward to hearing the Concerto in F and Pictures at an Exhibition.

I’d, of course, heard the Gershwin many times before (even played in a gawdawful summer festival orchestra nearly sight-reading a gawdawful performance of the 1st movement) and as a lapsed trumpet player, I was really looking forward to hearing Vosburgh play the Promenade and the piccolo part in Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle.  Trust me, trumpet geeks like me live for evenings like this.

The concert itself was solid.  Rock solid.  Slap a Colossus of Rhodes on it and it will survive the earthquake 6 decades later solid.  Druckenbrod of the P-G like the concert (Pictures, especially) as did Kanny of the Trib (though he liked the Gershwin more).

After the rousing rendition of “To Anacreon in Heaven” (with new words by Baltimore lawyer F. S. Key) that traditionally open each season of the PSO, the concert began.  When I heard the opening gesture of Steven Stucky’s “Dreamwaltzes” I immediately thought, “Uh-oh.  One of those pieces.”  And by that I mean it sounded like too many other more or less forgettable academic exercises in orchestration, instrumental color swaths stitched clumsily onto a weak compositional frame.  (You want jingly hues?  We got jingly hues!  You want sweepy sound effects?  We got sweepy sound effects!)

But then I started listening.  What an interesting piece!  Fragments of Brahms and Strauss (Richard, not Johann) waltzes were reset and, over the course of the piece, phased from the former to the latter.  I’d be curious to learn why Stucky chose those particular waltzes (Brahms Op 52, no. 6, Op 39 no. 8  and then motifs from Der Rosenkavalier) and not some other waltzes.  Alas, to this point the program notes were silent.  Boo.

I’d always had a tricky time with the Concerto.  Composed in 1925, only 8 years after the Prokofiev Op. 1 (ie  “Classical Symphony”), its name alludes to a neo-classical structure, though in reality it’s far less classically formalized than all that.  In fact, Dr.  Richard Rodda’s program notes says the compositional structure is “episodic in nature.”  Not that there’s anything wrong with that but it’s always felt to me like a complex pastiche of some incredibly interesting show tunes stripped of their texts and set for piano and orchestra – virtuosity of the piano part aside, still not yet a concerto.

But that’s just me and I could be wrong.  So it goes.

Rudolf Buchbinder’s playing in the Gershwin, it can not be overstated, was phenomenal and his encore, the Soirée de Vienne  Op. 56 – a transcription by Alfred Grünfeld of a waltz by Strauss (Johann, not Richard) – was simply lovely.

But now we get to Pictures.  Listening to the performance I don’t think anyone can ever accuse Manfred Honneck of skimping on the dynamics.  The pianissimos were feather soft quiet while the fortissimos were cranked up to 11 loud.  The beauty of the playing, however, was never lost.  Do you know how supremely difficult that is?

When the Gate of Kiev finally closed and the audience roared its approval back to the orchestra.  Soloists were acknowledged individually – twice.  A great way to open the season.

This is why the world cheers the PSO.

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