PSO gives taste of Italianate works

| Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013, 8:56 p.m.

It's an old musical cliché that the best Spanish orchestral music was written by French composers — Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. Or consider French author Alexis de Tocqueville's book “Democracy in America,” the remarkably perceptive take on American character written in the early 19th century.

Conductor Gianandrea Noseda offers such perspectives at his next set of Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concerts, which are called “Concert Italia.” They feature an Italian composer's setting of a scene in ancient Greece and a German composer's musical portraits of Italy.

“I discovered some of the atmosphere of my country from a non-Italian man,” says Noseda with some awe.

Noseda will conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony from Friday through Sunday at Heinz Hall, Downtown. The program is Victor de Sabata's “La Notte di Platon” (Plato's Night), Maurice Ravel's Piano Concerto for Left Hand featuring Benjamin Hochman as soloist and Richard Strauss' “Aus Italien” (From Italy).

De Sabata was a prominent composer and conductor in the first half of the 20th century. He followed Arturo Toscanini in 1930 as music director of La Scala, Milan, Italy's premiere opera house. De Sabata's discography includes the legendary 1953 recording of “Tosca” with Maria Callas, Tito Gobbi and Giuseppe di Stefano on EMI Classics.

He also was guest conductor for six weeks of concerts a season for the Pittsburgh Symphony from 1948 to 1952, when it had no music director between the tenures of Fritz Reiner and William Steinberg.

Noseda says de Sabata was very modern as a conductor, but more old-fashioned as a composer.

“The style is very along the way of the writing of Richard Strauss, of course with a particularly Italianate flavor. But the complexity of orchestration and way of building up the music is very complex.”

The piece is inspired by a feast given by the philosopher Plato. The most famous of Plato's single dialogues is “Symposium,” set at a dinner party at which the topic of conversation was love.

The preface to the score says the symphonic poem “seeks to represent in music the eternal conflict of the two contrasting forces in man: on the one hand that of the flesh and the reckless pursuit of pleasure, on the other, that of the spirit, with its call for detachment and self-denial.”

Strauss' “Aus Italien” was inspired by a visit to Italy in 1886 and is in four movements. Noseda's attraction to the piece for its creativity in capturing Italian atmosphere is part of a balanced appraisal.

“Strauss tried to describe Italy from his point of view, which is not the point of view we have as Italians,” Noseda says. “Although he did not get it right in the last movement with ‘Funiculi-Funicula,' or trying to describe the shores of Sorento in the first movement, it is a fantastic piece because he did get the aromas and atmosphere. It is incredible. We Italians are used to our beauties, but we take for granted some of the fragrances, such as oranges in January.”

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

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