Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra shimmers in Scheherazade

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra does many praiseworthy things that greatly add to the cultural life of Pittsburgh other than just play concerts. One thing that they do that most other top-level performing arts organizations don’t, is so frequently premiere new music. This past weeks’ performances at the Pittsburgh Symphony, showcased the American premiere of Carnegie Mellon University professor Leonardo Balada’s Symphony No. 6 (“Symphony of Sorrows”), included as part of the Pittsburgh Symphony’s Year of Pittsburgh Composers. The single movement symphony evokes an atmosphere that ranges from quiet, desolate suffering to insane violence and brutality. Some moments in the piece held my interest, but the majority to my ears was very chaotic and created an unsettling atmosphere.

This night also held a masterpiece that created an unforgettably rewarding atmosphere—Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade. It is a showpiece for the orchestra and once again, the Pittsburgh Symphony proved that it is a fine symphony with world-class principal players. Since this work started out as a violin concerto and morphed into the tone poem we all know and love as Rimsky-Korsakov wrote it, the solo violin part is, perhaps, the most well-known concertmaster solo in the repertoire. The solos were brilliant as they represented Scheherazade’s voice and stories. Each note, similar to that of an intriguing bird call held anonymity to it as the phrase crescendoed to melody and faded into the orchestra’s reply. Each movement was lyrical with the melodic passages throughout. Noah Bendix-Balgley always impresses but he was really terrific on Friday. He played with alternating force and plaintiveness, bringing personality to the music.

Principal flute Lorna McGhee, principal clarinet Michael Rusinek and principal bassoon Nancy Goeres all gave excellent performances of their respective solo cadenzas in Scheherazade. Principal oboe Cynthia Koledo DeAlmeida and Principal harp, Gretchen van Hoesen were also outstanding. Horns and brass played with a rich well-balanced sound and the strings rose to the many challenges in the piece.

Scheherazade was not the only highlight on the program…German violinist Arabella Steinbacher has brought and continues to bring violin playing to such a height that the “mortals” are looking up at what she is doing and continues to do with the violin. She is simply one of the finest exponents of the instrument anywhere. Steinbacher delighted the audience with a melancholic, yet sweet interpretation of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1. Often times she played into the orchestra and was a little hard to hear, but her intonation and technique undeniably deserves praise, for those aspects were impeccable. Her communication with the orchestra and the guest conductor, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, reminded me very much of chamber music.

Despite Frühbeck’s age (recently turning 80) he has lost no charisma with the baton. He favored the use of a large orchestra and appeared to fancy everyone in it. He enticed from violins sweetness; from cellos and basses, voluptuousness. He has a way with brass, and the players were in excellent form. For him a normally hidden trumpet flourish is a moment too delicious to let pass without extra spice. The winds played as though they had his undivided attention.

Music plays into the heart of what the Pittsburgh Symphony believes in. It revitalizes the audience, it is food for the soul, it transports us, it inspires, and it humbles us. Music and the arts make a bridge across this world in ways which nothing else can. It unites us all.

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