Sunday, December 4, 2016

Pittsburgh Symphony Musicians Return to Stridently Enthusiastic Audience

As the lights strategically dimmed and before music director Manfred Honeck appeared on the empty stage the audience arose in gleeful anticipation and began a strident applause. Conductor Honeck then walked out and addressed the audience: "We thank you for your loyalty, your commitment to this institution and your unwavering support. We will have a night that I am sure will be unforgettable. The music has returned."

The musicians of the Pittsburgh Symphony began to enter the stage, reversing the usual order of arrival where conductor comes last. The applause became even more loud and sustained.  No need to sit down, the applause blended into The Star Spangled Banner, the traditional start of the concert season and it sounded like almost everyone sang the lyrics, even me. Click here to see it for yourself, but make sure the volume is down.

The Overture to "Ruslan and Ludmila" by Mikhail Glinka was a fitting beginning to classical music, a rousing orchestral jaunt joined vociferously by every member of the orchestra. Instantly I realize how much I missed the live music in a large hall, with the ability to single out each instrument. And now here it is again, what a treat.

Next, soloist Cynthia Koledo DeAlmeida enters the stage to play "Gabriel's Oboe" by Ennio Morricone. Before they start we hear an infant babbling in the audience. The audience laughs when she says "I feel the same way." Soft and smooth sounds roll from her oboe as she seamlessly guides the rest of the orchestra. The selection is not long, but is beautiful. Another audience member tells me the oboe is very difficult and her performance is amazing.

Noah Bendix-Balgley returns to Pittsburgh for the violin solo of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. His style I find distinctive, and with the slower tempo we have a greater chance to savour the sounds of the strings especially during the segments where he plays alone. With the orchestra I hear the double bass to it's fullest. Soft pizzicati augment the give and take between orchestra and soloist. The second slow movement brings subtlety sweet sound almost surreal. The final movement interleaves various sections of the orchestra in well positioned conversation back and forth using full development. Mr Bendix-Balgley has certainly blossomed as a soloist.

At intermission I reflect on the nature of life. To me much of life involves movement. To get to the symphony this evening involves transportation. Leaving my seat to walk to the lobby requires movement.

Music is irrevocably wrapped in all kinds of movement. The composer creates music in his mind by moving thoughts through synapses and neurons. Those thoughts become practices on the piano, and then are scribed as notes on the manuscript to form the musical score. That score is copied countless times and place before the musicians, who, using their minds, bodies, muscles, lips, arms and fingers move their instruments in beauteous professional harmony based on the reading of the score. All this movement is led by the conductor, who with his baton, synchronizes the unanimity of the amalgamation, and with gently sweeping movements ushers forth the sounds from the musicians through their instruments into the very air with brilliant vibrations of molecules which reach out to our eardrums producing signals which move to our brains. And we move our lips - we smile :)  The circle is complete, but the movement never ends.

After moving back to my seat the second half begins. Several days ago I heard Dvorak's Symphony 9 From the New World several times on the radio. At the time I thought to myself (not knowing what was to be played this evening): wouldn't it be great if they were playing this wonderful symphony Friday. Well it turns out they were. Coincidence I'm sure. I've heard this played by the PSO at Heinz Hall before. But tonight it's alive and fresh, in fact, it could never grow old.

Everything about this music is Big! It was written when the composer visited America: A big country indeed. The music itself is big, bold, and loud, but not so that you want to reduce the volume, but rather appreciate it's very vivid character just as it is. The second movement: Largo, I like to think of as a lazy river. The English Horn just screams rustic charm like a steamboat moving down a lazy river. And then there are the sections where we hear all the voices of the string section play in unison, it's the original connotation of good vibrations that transcend my very soul.

The third movement brings genuine goose bumps and reminds me at times of a fugue like that of Bach, but there's plenty of drama as if two parts of the orchestra are having a melodic conversation. In between is a waltz intermezzo which pleases the sweet tooth, but the fugue and drama return. The forth movement proves there's something new around every turn. Here again we feel the aspects of bigness: This Is A Big Country. The movement screams to a stunning and loud conclusion and all the while Manfred Honeck is playing the orchestra like an instrument. It becomes most evident at the end.

Based on complement of instruments not used I knew there would be an orchestral encore. I was right, but this was a premier of "Fanfare for Pittsburgh" by James MacMillen which had been delayed because of the unfortunate strike which had thankfully been resolved. This piece was for full orchestra with lots of percussion. Like a chase scene in any movie with boats screaming down the rivers, and cogs of machinery constantly turning, the music and tones move up and down, and then twice we hear a gong near the end. A xylophone leads a transition to the ending, and then it's over. A fanfare which you probably won't hear again soon unless you come on Sunday for the second show or hear on WQED next week.

One blogger gets his 15 seconds of fame!

Saturday, July 23, 2016

PSO Classical Mixer

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra hosted a summer event called 'Classical Mixer' this last weekend. Since I haven't heard live orchestral music much lately since the conclusion of the regular season, I made sure to attend. I'm glad I did, it was a treat.

During the mixer portion, in the outdoor garden, Carolyn Edwards introduced herself and asked if I'd fill out a form to possibly win a chance to sit with the orchestra for one of the selections. It was very kind of her and the other musicians of the PSO who hosted the events before the concert. The ultimate winner indeed got to sit for the 1812 Overture. In fact, PSO Cellist Mikhail Istomin joked that the winner might need earplugs, or she might go deaf, that's how loud the horns are for the ending.

In the lobby three more members of the Cello section of the PSO played as a trio. The part I like best was the overture to Magic Flute by Mozart. These were Charlie Powers, Alexandra Thompson and Michael DeBruyn. I spoke to Michael after they played and he gave me the name of a few of the selections. All of the musicians are very friendly and gracious.

Jennifer Orchard and Craig Knox came out between selections to announce one of winners of the evening. It was entertaining and funny. The winning selection was inside Craig's Tuba which at one point he joked weighed 75 pounds as he held it over his head. See the photos I took below...

Ludwig Van Beethoven - Overture to Egmont

Leading off with Beethoven is always a grand idea in my opinion, and usually the audience is very receptive.

Wolfgang Mozart - Symphony No. 38 (Prague), 3rd mov. Presto

Mozart's Prague Symphony is one of his best! The third movement is very rhythmic. Even if you've never experienced this, the first time hearing this charming music brings an instant smile.

Johannes Brahms - Symphony No. 3, 3rd mov. Poco allegretto

This movement elicits moderate tempo and uniquely Brahms style. I like Brahms, but my favorites are the classical styles of Mozart and Beethoven.

Sergei Prokofiev - Classical Symphony (No. 1) 3rd and 4th mov.

We were told that this symphony was composed in an attempt to emulate the style of Joseph Haydn. After this Prokofiev selection, Conductor Andres Franco asked the audience if they have a favorite so far. Not too many responded, but for me, this is it. In fact, I wished they had played they entire symphony. This is the first time I heard it played live by a symphony orchestra. I'll be looking forward to an upcoming performance of the Prokofiev Classical Symphony soon!

Leonard Bernstein - Overture to Candide

Another crowd favorite. American composer Bernstein was at his very best with this Overture. So many elements and wrapped together in a brisk package which seems almost too short, we want more.

James Macmillan - One

Conductor Andres Franco indicated that this composition is a single line of music that is transferred between sections of the orchestra until the end. I liked it very much.

Edward Elgar - Enigma Variations E.D.U. Finale

Elgar Enigma Variations contain themes from two variations are echoed: 'Nimrod' and 'C.A.E.' The one part has a very distinctive and recognizable melody. All in all a very enjoyable selection.

Piotr Tchaikovsky - 1812 Overture solennelle

Mikhail Istomin, Cello, introduced this piece. He's from Russia, and apparently he never played this piece over there, yet he joked that it's always played here on the 4th of July and that this piece seemingly has nothing to to with our Independence Day. The beginning is a slow and quiet section of Cellos which is what I like best. But I'm certain the ending with the fireworks and verve might be the crows favorite. I like the begging so much, I use it as an alarm. I hear it every day and never grow tired. But to be sure, to hear this music in person at Heinz Hall with the world famous Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is treat that should never be missed!

As an encore, the PSO played music from  Jacques Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld

The "Infernal Galop" from Act 2, Scene 2, is famous outside classical circles as the music for the "can-can" (to the extent that the tune is widely, but erroneously, called "can-can")

Cello trio PSO Classical Mixer
Cello trio PSO Classical Mixer
Cello trio PSO Classical Mixer
Cello trio PSO Classical Mixer
PSO Classical Mixer
PSO Classical Mixer
PSO Classical Mixer
PSO Classical Mixer
PSO Classical Mixer
PSO Classical Mixer
PSO Classical Mixer

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Stepping out of the Silver Screen: Alec Baldwin with the PSO

Entering Heinz Hall last Saturday, I was immediately struck by the array of speakers cascaded around the back of the stage, in captivating contrast of spotless white and black. I realized it was indeed to be used by the organ for Cameron Carpenter's selection to be heard later in the evening. But I had forgotten the effect of deep bases that can be projected along with the symphony in Richard Strauss's "Also Sprach Zarathustra." Indeed, when Maestro Manfred Honeck unleashed the theme upon the audience, there was no mistaking the magnificence and expansiveness the sound can achieve, especially at Heinz Hall. To say that the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra 'nailed it' is an understatement, but with the addition of the deep base played by the speakers it was breathtaking.

After the peak of the music, it ends with much applause from the audience. Alec Baldwin appears onto the stage, his presence seemingly larger than life because of all his silver screen roles, yet in person, friendly and affable. With a smile, he jokingly said he asked for this piece to be played as his introduction. It was almost like a Hollywood entrance as if he were stepping out of the silver screen in style.

One of my favorite movies of late is by Woody Allen "To Rome with Love" where Alec Baldwin interacts with several young people he meets on the streets of Rome. He's there, but he's not, as if he is the conscience of one of the others in the movie. It's intriguing in it's appeal. It sort of reminded me of Alec at this concert, as a character to introduce the pieces, as a conscience of the audience, there but not really there, but in his charm and as an addition to the entire evening, he is invaluable.

Mr. Baldwin spoke of his chance to see the PSO perform Beethoven in 2014 while filming a movie in Pittsburgh, and that led to him hosting this concert. As he put it, the advent of his love for classical music came in the 1980s while driving in his car listening on the radio. He spoke of a car-phone and kidded that he actually had to look for paper and pen to write down the selection played or hit the speed dial on his car phone to the station to ask what was played at a certain time. Coincidentally I myself remember doing that myself. With Mr. Baldwin it was Mahler 9. I remember calling in the 1990s to WQED to find out about Mozart's oboe concerto.

He kidded young folks about CDs - "you see it's this round plastic thing you actually put in something to play the music," while discussing his collection of classical music. He spoke of listening to the music in the concert hall - "here nothing can compare the seeing and listening of a performance done live." He said he's never had a bad experience at the symphony.

He went on to say that a few film directors borrow from the classical repertoire, and such was the case with the main title music of "The Shining" based on the Dream of the Witches Sabbath, by Hector Berlioz. After this awe inspiring performance by the PSO Mr Baldwin returned to the stage with a "wowie wow." He asked the audience if we liked the bells. Yes. "I brought those with me on the plane. I did it for you actually."

He spoke of his first role on a soap opera. Apparently his character was killed off by two separate people at the same time, neither knew the other was there; a very funny story the way Mr. Baldwin described it.

He next introduced Tchaikovsky's "Pas de Deux", holiday music beautifully written, that he would never tire of hearing.

Immediately following, Manfred Honeck dove into the Beethoven finale of Symphony no. 7. Alegro con brio. Fast, lively and marvelous, one of my personal favorites.

Next Baldwin introduced one of his favorites, the adagio from Mahler's symphony no. 5. But before that he asked Honeck: "How's it going so far Maestro?" "What do you mean" was the response -- smiles all around. Apparently the Mahler composition was intended as a love poem to his wife Alma. Listening to those deep rich strings - it was a beautiful poem indeed.

Next was Prokofiev "The Death of Tybalt". To me it seemed more a comedy than tragedy.

Fascinating Rhythm by Gershwin was played on the organ by Cameron Carpenter with those large array of speakers and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. There was a screen where they projected a close up of the organist's hands on the keyboard with 4 rows of keys. It was amazing the dexterity and adroitness he was able to continually maintain.

There are so many things about this music that I've said before in the blog, because many of the selections are one's that have been played here before, only not just snippets but the full selections. I enjoyed the music very much, although sometimes it was a bit loud. I do miss the entire pieces and not just the excerpts.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Singularly Intimate Ardor Flirtingly Revealed

I start at the end of Friday's concert with the composition freshest on my mind, the Carmen melodies I'm humming outside the concert hall, and all the way home. With the Bizet Carmen Suite we see and hear the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at their very best. They shine in this setting and excel in the undistilled triumphant symphonic form. To me Carmen is a succinct set of voices that reach out and grab the listener, distinctly and clearly telling a story. 

Juraj Valčuha, with his softly waving baton, lead the orchestra seamlessly, and yet I could experience his distinct style, with the way he would single out Balcony single sets of musicians to enunciate a selection, or how he congealed the whole orchestra as a robust amalgamation, it was an enthusiastic highlight to the proceeding. I experienced the complete dynamic extent of the talented orchestra.

The live concert venue reaches more deeply the fidelity of the music. My ears extend their listening capacity, I experience no signal loss, no degradation. Heart, soul, full body - these things no electronic speakers can ever achieve, these are the multiple dimensional aspects I fully hear, see and feel at Heinz Hall with the PSO. 

I also contemplate a certain fascination in the reincarnation of the animate karma of these notes, printed as a score on paper a century before. These talented symphony musicians and conductor simply dust off the old manuscript, imbibe their magic and voilà, the music comes alive. The Carmen was a perfect ending to this fantastic evening. 

Backing up a notch, I consider the Tchaikovsky Romeo & Juliet Suite: The title says it all to anyone familiar with Shakespeare's play, but isn't it a tragedy? Oh that I could forget the programmatic context and re-hear this beautiful composition in a vacuum, but not literally. Like rewinding the clock to the first time, and playing again, without the title, without the intro, without words, only sounds, hearing again for the first time. Then perhaps the emotions could quickly stir, and creativity would spark - further onrushing impressions would be forged without bias or foreknowledge. And I could describe my thoughts in that incubator, with only the pure music to hear. Then, if it were possible, rewind and do it all over again, if only to compare, to heuristically compare notes with myself.

But alas, it cannot be so, I cannot forget all that prior knowledge, yet I allude my impressions in a bottle, a suspension of foreknowledge for only a moment. The sounds are incredible, yet inexorably Tchaikovsky-like, with bits and pieces of 1812 and some Symphonies thrown in for good measure. The melody is amazing. Then the orchestra goes wild as if some tempest is let loose in order to menace the simple melody. And even after recapitulation the tawdry storm takes stronger hold and will not be denied. 

Diverging paths and the masks that we wear
But in the intermezzo a softer part briefly emerges. My favorite part. Its not a melody nor cacophony of storm. Instead, a quiet storm to stir my soul. Whispered oboe sounds juxtaposed to harp, all wrapped in softly speaking strings. The proverbial eye of the storm. Exiting that eye we come full circle; eventually the tempest concludes. I am not sure the extent of devastation. Yet now begins a new aspect, a final tribute unlike the rest. A conclusion of sorts to assure us all of our destined happy ending.

My moment has passed and my suspension of prior programmatic knowledge is over. I suppose the tragic end to the love story of Romeo and Juliet was rewritten in the ending provided by Tchaikovsky. This time maybe it deserves a happy ending.

Now I backup to the beginning of the evening and the opening notes of the first selection. Lush rolling waves of gentle soul, as if breaking in my dreams, enunciate a perfect transference upon my eardrums, eliciting vibrating waves that ramble aimfully through my mind, developing a purely profound union of meaning. Thus begins the Tristin und Istolde Prelude und Liebestod by Richard Wagner.

It is a sturdy cacophony replete with  waving baton, or else a measured gravitational series of waves that roll ceaselessly over my senses, caressing the very depths of my being. Either or, it makes no difference, it is anxiously perceived.

In my minds eye I imagine a subtle smile detected, with long flowingHallelujah hair flung opulently as if to obscure my concentrated view, but not in a direct line of flight to the ensemble, but rather a subtle diversion reaching from within the orchestra's core competency, softly mixing harmonic elegy to show an ardor flirtingly revealed.

A temporal dilemma arises, hitherto redacted prose replete with singularly intimate imbalance replenishes softly my consummate repose. Already scribed with abundance, the text remains. Hearing quiet sounds, the concert continues, no need to amplify, my conscience returns in ample abundance.

The love story is still building, ever longing, building, longing the way it was intended in the opera, the way it has always been. Is it a splendid tragedy? No, it's ever my immortal hearing of a beautiful love told in music which never fails to send shivers through my soul

Next,Guest Artist RoomI find that Dvořák's cello concerto as an interesting juxtaposition.  Exchanges traded between soloist and orchestra act as a subtle diversion to the music. Pausing between phrases, Joshua Roman looks back from his cello in recognition of the well-done part of the players, his head shaking with the rhythm. I perceive the voice as cello, cello voice, as a woman, full bodied, desirable. Rolling, ambling with the flute, loudly vibrating strings, swift and pure, and Interplay with horns accentuate my appreciation for orchestra and soloist.

 The encore by Joshua Roman is excellent in its clarity and harmonic form. I believe the composer is J. S. Bach based on the sound and form. Searching youtube, I notice that Mr. Roman likes to perform on rooftops in big cities or in front of a koi pond or similar unique venues. It's a distinguishing characteristic. After searching a bit more I believe his encore may have been Bach Cello Suite no. 1.