Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra waltzes back into Heinz Hall

| Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012, 8:52 p.m.

Just three weeks ago, Manfred Honeck and the musicians of the Pittsburgh Symphony were in residence at the Musikverein in Vienna. They resume classical concerts at Heinz Hall this week with a program of Viennese music.

The symphony's music director always looks forward to the Thanksgiving weekend at Heinz Hall because he's established the tradition of devoting the second half to music of the Strauss family — the waltzes and polkas that the Vienna Philharmonic offers at its televised New Year's Day concerts.

Honeck will conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at concerts Friday through Sunday at Heinz Hall, Downtown. The program is Ludwig van Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Emperor”), with Yefim Bronfman as soloist, along with music of the Strauss family.

The repertoire features Johann Strauss Jr.'s best-known piece, the “On the beautiful, blue Danube” waltzes, which Honeck will conduct for the first time with the symphony.

“I'm really looking forward to doing it with the orchestra,” he says. “(The orchestra) is very into playing Viennese waltz, knows what I want and is aware of the stylistic things going on.”

Water is the thematic link between the pieces that will be played, including the “A Night in Venice” Overture and Josef Strauss' Skating Polka. Baritone Gregg Baker will sing Franz Lehar's “Volga Song” and Henry Mancini's “Moon River.”

Bronfman last performed with Honeck at Heinz Hall in remarkable performances of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 24 in May 2009, and has had “wonderful” experiences with him in other repertoire with other orchestras.

Honeck “is very much a personality when he works with the soloist, definitely not taking second fiddle,” the pianist says. “He definitely has an opinion, and that's what we have to work with. I think it's good. It gives the performance a degree of vibrancy, which under the different circumstance of a passive accompaniment cannot happen.”

Beethoven's “Emperor” Concerto” was first performed in Vienna in 1811 during the city's occupation by the French army of Napoleon. It may have gotten its nickname at the premiere, when a French soldier is said to have shouted out “Vive L'Empereur” after a martial passage in the music. Beethoven would not have been happy. It was precisely when Beethoven heard Napoleon had crowned himself emperor that the composer turned against him and scratched out his dedication of the Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”) for choosing the tyrant's path.

The concerto is the last of Beethoven's five for piano that Bronfman learned.

“For many, it's the first one to learn, because it's the most outgoing. For me, I did it backwards,” Bronfman says. He's been playing it for 25 years now and made CDs and DVDs of the Beethoven concerti over the summer with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, Netherland, conducted by Andris Nelsons.

“The music has the quality of heroic bravado, yet what is more fascinating to me is how he uses the simplest of means. I think it's probably very experimental Beethoven. Even in today's terms, it is a very modern piece to me,” Bronfman says. “There is more than imagination, there is a genius that makes such great sonorities.”

The pianist suspects a “secret message of a soldier” in some high repeated notes at the start of the first movement, a kind of code that later composer Robert Schumann used in his music for communicating with his wife and friends. He also believes that Schumann was influenced by the concerto's second movement in the finale of his Fantasia for solo piano.

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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