Tuesday, May 5, 2009

WPAS - Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra - Strauss, Haydn & Beethoven - 05/04/09

Conductor: Manfred Honeck
Strauss: Tod und Verklärung ("Death and Transfiguration"), Op. 24
Haydn: Cello Concerto in C Major, Hob. VIIb/1
Beethoven: Symphony No 7 in A Major, Op. 92

It was with great anticipation that I went to the Kennedy Center yesterday evening to hear the century-old prestigious Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, which is considered by many the "greatest American orchestra". While I tend to find those rankings downright silly, there is no doubt that it is a first-rate ensemble, and the decidedly strong and eclectic program featuring Strauss, Haydn and Beethoven sounded the perfect vehicle for a very satisfying evening. Moreover, they did not come alone. Issued from an extremely musical family, the young veteran of the international scene Alisa Weilerstein was scheduled to play Haydn's lost and rediscovered cello concerto, and the orchestra's fairly new music director, Manfred Honeck, was on the podium, ready to put his extensive experience as a musician and guest conductor to good use.

I can't say I'm a big fan of Strauss' oeuvre, but his symphonic tone poem Death and Transfiguration about the last hours of a dying man got an almost scarily gripping treatment in the hands of the Honeck and Co last night. Every brief theme and motif was vividly evoking the struggle of the body and the soul or cheerfully recalling some happy events of his life before death eventually enabled him to reach the highest ground. Clearly very attentive to the details and full of impressive vigor, maestro Honeck assuredly led the orchestra into a remarkably tight performance, consistently highlighting the natural beauty of a work that can easily become overly flashy. And it only got better.
After Strauss' 19th century Romantic work, we jumped back in time and into the understated elegance of 18th century court music with Haydn's Cello Concerto in C Major. Breaking through the limits of the baroque concerto, this popular piece offers a wide range of delightful material, making it both intrinsically complex and readily accessible. Botticellian Alisa Weilerstein effortlessly displayed her incredible technical skills and remarkably mature understanding of the work, and most particularly delivered an Adagio to die for. With her deeply rich tones perfectly emphasized by the reduced orchestra, she proved once again what an accomplished musician she already is, and kept us wondering how much better it's gonna get.
As the main piece of the program, it is hard to go wrong with Beethoven. Unlike his more famous cataclysmic symphonies, the No 7 unabashedly exudes happiness and joie de vivre. Of course, Beethoven being Beethoven, his trademark intensity is never too far, but here the music takes the time to breath and lighten up too. Yesterday, the orchestra did full justice to the majestic dimension of the score while underlining its earthier flavor as well, and Honeck carefully kept his uniformly outstanding musicians under expert control with energetically expressive conducting. Everything beautifully came and stayed together as the balance between exuberance and quietness was steadily maintained. The well-known second movement, a perennial crowd favorite, was lushly unhurried, opening with its spell-binding crescendo that never seemed to end, but eventually led to even better things before the grand journey's exhilarating Finale.

The air in the concert hall was so electrified that only a carefully picked encore could have cooled things off, and it did. An ethereally beautiful "Morning Mood" was just what Herr Honeck ordered, and Grieg's beloved number gently restored some order before sending us off into the damp and cold spring (?) night fully satiated.

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