An Intimate Affair with the PSO, Honeck, Haydn, Rossini & Strauss

As the 2012-13 concert season nears completion for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and music director Manfred Honeck they can most certainly be proud of the performances they presented this past weekend at Heinz Hall.

The program included three master works each with its own beauty and creative demands on the musicians and the conductor. The program was Gioacchino Rossini’s “William Tell” Overture, Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 93, and Richard Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben.” Before each piece there were videos presented featuring the orchestra soloists who shared their insights and observations enlightening us to their special roles in the performances of these powerful compositions.

The performances were an intimate and cozy experience with the PSO. It was one of those unique and rare programs featuring, not a guest soloist, but soloists within the orchestra, although each solo was easily “concerto-worthy”.

Principal English Horn, Harold Smoliar has the first solo in William Tell and also a solo in Ein Heldenlaben–he plays a shepherd in both. In William Tell, Smoliar describes it as is in the calm after a storm in which he and Principal Flutist, Lorna McGhee gracefully call back and forth to each other.

I have never heard William Tell performed live; it was actually quite satisfying. I think William Tell has unfortunately become a piece that everybody just hears the name and recalls the theme with the mentality of “oh yeah, that’s William Tell Overture.” But, truly even watching the piece ensemble-wise was fascinatingly captivating. The graceful plucking motion and the unison of the PSO with the ricochet bow stroke by the strings is mesmerizing in unity and accord. There has been repeated use (and sometimes parody) of parts of this overture in both classical music and popular media, most famously as the theme music for “The Lone Ranger” in radio and television shows.

Haydn’s Symphony No. 93, the first of Haydn’s twelve “London Symphonies” was written in 1791. This piece is typical of a classical period symphony; its orchestra is smaller than the full one we are used to—almost like a chamber orchestra. There are fewer string players and fewer winds resulting in very exposed parts for the strings and especially the wind soloists. To be able to play and portray the ‘light’ aspect Haydn composed here the way the PSO does is the pinnacle of music making. The 2nd mvt. opened with the principal players playing the theme as a quartet, which shortly and somewhat abruptly ended with a typically funny “Haydn moment”—bassoonist, David Sogg played a, shall we say bleat.

Principal Cellist, Anne Martindale-Williams opened the Ein Heldenlaben along with five solo cellos and the bass section. Martindale-Williams describes the opening of the piece: “Starting this piece is a bit like hang gliding. You’re standing on the mountain ledge, all alone. Your heart is beating, you’re waiting for the right moment to begin and you take a deep breath and you take a running start, and then there’s no turning back—you’re over the edge.” Martindale played with secure intonation and honesty, yet admirable restraint.

At the end of Heldenlaben, Smoliar again describes his role being after a storm, although a different type of a storm in what he appropriately describes as an “ego” storm. In both the Heldenlaben and William Tell, Smoliar’s solos are similar in that they use the same type of melody. Smoliar pointed out how the solos sound similar to someone yodeling.

Richard Strauss features a very large virtuosic violin solo in the second part of the tone poem—‘The Hero’s Companion’ which is a musical portrait of Strauss’ wife Pauline, played by the Concertmaster, in this case, Noah Bendix-Balgley. He portrayed every aspect of the character of Pauline from the many descriptions by Strauss beyond what seems musically and technically impossible.

Strauss not only composed extensive solos for violin, but also for French horn, played by Principal Horn, William Caballero. Most of Strauss’ tone poems feature the horn as the main character. In Ein Heldenlaben the horn represents Don Juan, the Hero. Caballero played with more than heroic qualities, and exceeded his role as Principal Horn.

Indeed this evening was an intimate affair with Honeck and the world renowned Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

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