Spanish conductor de Burgos returns for 24th PSO run

| Wednesday, March 6, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

Every performance is a fresh opportunity, but major orchestras have a history with the masterpieces that fill the standard repertoire. The lineage sometimes carries extra honor.

This season, conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos is conducting two orchestras with special ties to Bela Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra — the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which gave the world premiere in December 1944, and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, which made the world premiere recording in February 1946.

Fruhbeck de Burgos will conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at Friday and Sunday concerts at Heinz Hall, Downtown. The program also includes Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Serenade No. 6 and Piano Concerto No. 15, with Shai Wosner as soloist.

The Spanish conductor, 79, will be returning for his 24th weekend of concerts since his local debut in 1972.

Wosner, who will be making his Heinz Hall debut, received a broad musical education as a child in Israel. He moved to New York City to continue his studies, where Emanuel Ax was one of his teachers at the Juilliard School. Wosner was praised for his “keen musical mind and deep soul” on National Public Radio's “All Things Considered.”

Mozart wrote his Piano Concerto No. 15 in 1784, in the golden early years of his time in Vienna. In writing about it to his father, who was back home in Salzburg, the composer noted that this concerto was more difficult for the pianist than another he'd written at about the same time. He did not mention the qualities that make the piece cherishable to us today — starting with the charming opening idea for woodwinds that is answered by the strings.

“You find that incredible spirit of dialogue of the Mozart operas in the dialogue between orchestra and piano,” says Fruhbeck de Burgos. “For me, this is a very personal impression, the writing in the last piano concertos is about the most sophisticated writing in history for woodwinds.

Bartok wrote his Concerto for Orchestra in 1943, when he was struggling in New York City. Leaving his native Hungary because of the Nazis also meant losing financial reserves. In addition, he was diagnosed with cancer and worried about his wife's future after he died.

Two Hungarian friends, Pittsburgh Symphony music director Fritz Reiner and violinist Joseph Szigeti, went to meet with Boston Symphony music director Serge Koussevitzky to help Bartok by commissioning a work from him. Koussevitzky was great champion of contemporary music and agreed. He led the world premiere in early December 1944 in Boston, took it to Carnegie Hall in New York City, and repeated it in Boston in late December when it was broadcast on the radio.

Bartok' Concerto for Orchestra is more generally accessible than many of his earlier works, as is his Piano Concerto No. 3, which was written with the hope his wife would earn some money performing it.

But Fruhbeck de Burgos also sees Bartok's late style in America as a maturation of his language, and felt that way long ago as a music student in Munich.

“When I did the Bartok for the first time, it was a question of nerves and a very difficult work with everybody,” says the conductor, who was interviewed during the week he was rehearsing it in Boston. “Now, the Boston Symphony knows it inside and out, from memory.”

The conductor, who has more than once commented on the vast improvement in orchestral performance standards during his life, says he's not the same either.

“My general approach may be the same but there are so many things that I change. I am very critical with myself,” Fruhbeck de Burgos says.

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

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