Symphony 'brings it' on European tour
The first week of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's European tour encompassed three countries, including the orchestra's debut Sept. 3 at the George Enescu Festival in Bucharest, Romania.
The festival honors Romania's most famous musician, who, as a composer, is best known for his Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 but also was a great violinist who played piano and conducted.
Music director Manfred Honeck and the orchestra offered a popular program for their debut, performing Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 with soloist Yuja Wang and Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 at the Sala Palatului.
Principal bass Jeffrey Turner said the concert went very well and was enlivened by Wang's predilection for changing things in her interpretation every night.
“Things are really good orchestrally in the land of Enescu,” Turner said. “I can't imagine how they fill the hall for four events a day for a month in a town of 2 million. It's a huge festival. The hall we played in, a very large modern hall, had a good acoustic.”
Principal timpanist Edward Stephan was not surprised by what he encountered visiting Bucharest for the first time, because when he played in Fort Worth, Texas, he had friends who had grown up there.
“The impression you get is of an old, battered city trying to come to life,” he said. “It has a real potent mix of old and deep down with brand new and glitzy — a really neat dichotomy. There are a lot of young people around.”
The tour began in Austria at the Grafenegg Festival, which was founded by pianist Rudolf Buchbinder and is about an hour's drive northwest of Vienna.
However, the first Pittsburgh notes heard in Austria were not at the festival, but at the St. Anna's Children's Hospital in Vienna, where concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley and associate principal viola Tatjana Mead Chamis performed Aug. 28 for patients, families and staff.
Chamis enjoys playing for children, often going to public schools. She was mainly concerned about communicating in German, which she knows but doesn't use much anymore. At the hospital, Chamis even offered an impromptu translation of the song, “If You're Happy and You Know It.”
Bendix-Balgley, who speaks German fluently, and Chamis performed a wide variety of music, from Austrian folk songs to duos by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Bela Bartok. But it was solo music by Johann Sebastian Bach — the Gavotte from the Violin Partita No. 3 and the Prelude from the Cello Suite in G major on viola — that most captivated the children.
“The doctors were amazed at how attentive the children were to the Bach,” Chamis said. “They were glued to it. They might have had masks on, but you could see their eyes smiling. I thought, I've got to do this more often.”
Turner was especially positive about the second Grafenegg concert, which, unlike the first, was played outdoors.
“It is the best outdoor venue I have ever played, a wonderful acoustic, perfect temperature — just a great experience,” Turner said. “I thought the Shostakovich Fifth was one of the best we've ever played.”
The concert at the Philharmonie in Berlin on Aug. 31 was webcast live by the Berlin Philharmonic's Digital Concert Hall service. The sound was remarkably clean and clear, even on a laptop's tiny speakers. The concert webcast can still be found on the symphony's website at www.pittsburghsymphony.org.
The Berlin concert began with Leos Janacek's early Suite for Strings, one of several pieces of tour repertoire that has not been performed for Pittsburgh audiences.
The review in the Berliner Morgenpost said that violin soloist Anne Sophie Mutter was “a virtuoso in the service of the composition and the composer” and praised Honeck and the orchestra for being musically intertwined with the soloist, not merely in the background.
“I'm very proud of the orchestra,” Honeck said. “I say this not only because they played so well, but also because the audiences have been extremely happy and impulsive in their reactions.”
After the concert, Honeck was visited by the first violin section of his previous ensemble, the Swedish Radio Orchestra. He said they were all amazed by the concert and what a great orchestra the Pittsburgh Symphony is.
“The thing that's amazing about this orchestra is that it always commits 100 percent,” Stephan said. “When the pressure dials up, the orchestra does, too. Everyone brings it.
“Manfred gets excited when he gets over here with this orchestra. He's proud of the orchestra and anxious to show what we can do,” Stephan said. “He lives for this.”
The tour continues through Sept. 14, with stops in Paris; Dusseldorf, Frankfurt and Bonn, Germany; and Lucerne, Switzerland.
Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or firstname.lastname@example.org.