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Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra uses present to embrace past

| Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012, 8:51 p.m.
Pittsburgh Symphony music director Manfred Honeck in 2012. Credit: Rob Davison.

New perspectives of varying kinds will fill the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's weekend concerts led by Manfred Honeck, although the program's pattern is the most familiar one at classical concerts — a piece of new music, a concerto and, after intermission, a major symphony.

The new music brings the language of the symphonic scherzo into the 21st century. The concerto will be played on the instrument for which it was written, probably for the first time at Heinz Hall.

Honeck will conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in BNY Mellon Grand Classics concerts Friday to Sunday at Heinz Hall, Downtown. The program is Mason Bates' “Mothership,” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Clarinet Concerto and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4.

Bates is the symphony's composer of the year, whose “Liquid Interface” made a positive impression when Leonard Slatkin conducted it here in February 2010. Bates will perform the electronics part of “Mothership” with Honeck and the orchestra.

“I'm looking forward to getting to know him,” Honeck says. “He's one of the young, exciting composers we have nowadays. I get a lot of questions in Europe about him. It's great to have him with us.”

“Mothership” was written in 2011 and, according to the program notes, “imagines the orchestra as a mothership that is docked by several visiting soloists, who offer brief, but virtuoso, riffs on the work's thematic material over action-packed electro-acoustic orchestral figuration.”

But while a symphonic scherzo of the 19th century would be based on, even if abstractly, dance rhythms of its time, Bates uses modern techno rhythms.

Mozart's Clarinet Concerto was the last major piece he entered in the catalog he kept of his music, completed in November 1791, less than a month before he died. It was written for his friend Anton Stadler, who had a clarinet with an extended bass register that is now called a basset clarinet.

Symphony principal clarinet Michael Rusinek will play it on a basset clarinet, which Honeck calls “a great thing.”

“On the clarinet in the other version, you don't have the low notes and have to change phrases by octave displacement,” the conductor says. “Michael will be able to play it (the way Mozart intended). The color is also a little different, darker, and the tessitura is a little difficult. I think this will be the Pittsburgh premiere of the original.”

Honeck is likely to bring a different perspective to Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4, which he'll be conducting for the first time at Heinz Hall.

Tchaikovsky wrote the symphony during one of the most tumultuous periods of his life. His marriage to Antonina Milyukova lasted less than three months, ending with the composer attempting suicide.

His Fourth Symphony is a turn for Tchaikovsky to the symphony as a personal expression. It is a symphony about fate, announced loudly right at the start. For Beethoven in his Symphony No. 5, triumph could be achieved over fate. For Tchaikovsky, fate was the force which prevents happiness.

“I'm really looking forward to doing the Fourth with this great orchestra, after hearing them play the Fifth, which was marvelous on tour,” Honeck says. “The Fourth has a lot of beautiful color but also dramatic contracts.

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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