An American tasked to hear Parisian Musical Joy

It seems an almost insurmountable task to record every idea experienced attending a concert, especially when the goal is to transcribe the impressions and later fully bring them to written fruition. Several hurdles have to be overcome including timeliness and precision. Hearing, seeing and experiencing the music must be recorded in real time, yet writing with pen and paper is a rather slow process. I take notes, but they are never very verbose; it becomes necessary to try to discern exactly what was meant at the time those few words were scribed in the margins of the program. An abstract quality which is difficult to relate at the time of hearing is sometimes obscure. A musical expert may find the task less daunting, but for me it is often difficult to relay thoughts in precise musical terms. When I’m taking the time afterwards to hop, skip or jump beyond these hurdles I’ve described, I often fill in the gaps with new impressions.

During the performance this evening I noticed a photographer in suit and tie holding an impressive professional-looking camera taking photos of the orchestra. To do this one would need special permission. Often I have wondered what it would be like to be able to photograph Music Director Manfred Honeck as he adroitly conducts the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. It would be a treat to first see the majestic movements and then to capture in photographs the ethereal elliptical pirouettes inscribed in mid-air by his baton as he renders moments of pure musical joy exhibited by his one and only exuberance for the music reflected by his smile, or at other times in his serious attention to detail, manifestly pinpointing with succinct motions to the orchestra indicating specific direction.

Pétroushka, by Igor Stravinsky, received this vigorous yet nuanced attention from our venerable music director. Notes gushed forth like an irruption of migrating birds upon the warming spring grounds in search of a singular niche to call their own. Despite the unrelenting swift tempo, I was enthusiastically taken by the performance. Knowing that Pétroushka was a puppet: “the immortal and unhappy hero of every fair” was to aid my hearing of the programmatic music. My expectations were in this case enhanced by reading the program prior to listening to the music. Musically, what I appreciated most was the optimal balance of the strings to the rest of the orchestra — the brass didn’t overwhelm. Here are a few of the notes I took at the time:

  • quick start; drum and trombone accent;
  • sawing – a Stravinsky trademark; melody familiar;
  • fragmented & programmatic; English horn – sounding sour notes; one brief interlude;
  • take flight (last movement, The Fair, towards evening); strings jovial; effervescent ending, yet more

There you have it — now what did I mean by that 🙂

Next up was the Cello Concerto by Arthur Honegger with expert solo by Anne Martindale Williams in blue dress and beaming smile. It was impressive to watch her play, and amazing the way she would use vibrato to accentuate the notes in the first part of the movement. Often the notes would go all the way down the scale to the very lowest frequency tone that can be achieved by a cello: the last string with no fingers, and this would end a phrase. This piece seemed to have a sort of rhythm and blues sound. The middle and end section seemed to suggest first a march, then a final chase, a fitting conclusion. The audience of the packed Heinz Hall offered Ms. Williams a grand standing ovation, richly deserved.

And last (but not least, there was to be one more selection), George Gershwin: “An American in Paris” with a very large compliment of musicians arrayed upon the stage.  Luscious is the first word that comes to mind in trying to describe this sweeping and melodic score. Conductor and orchestra were in complete synchronicity, as they swept me away with the sounds I’ve heard countless times before, but never like this, for the reasons I’ve often tried to describe. Sounds never heard were now heard; counterpoint revealed; harmony unhinged; it becomes evident that the symphony is an experience that simply cannot truly ever be experienced with 2, 4, 5 or even a dozen speakers, at home or at a movie theater. It simply must be experienced with 100 musicians and a singular conductor at the concert hall.

Tonight was offered an extra intermission and one final selection, this time with the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra in place of the PSO, conducted by Lawrence Loh performing a piece by Darius Milhaud “La Creation duMonde” with ballet by Attack Theatre. Very well done, both musically, and the dance!

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