Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra goes Russian for upcoming program

| Thursday, Oct. 31, 2013, 8:55 p.m.

Comparing national styles in music can be illuminating, such as the contrasts between German and French composers. Or American and European.

Yet, there also are many differences to be savored within a nation's musical heritage, some of which are encountered almost everywhere. That's the case with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's upcoming Russian program, which juxtaposes Serge Prokofiev with Sergei Rachmaninoff.

“These are two phenomenal Russian composers, one anchored in tradition and the other trying to escape from tradition,” says conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier. “There is an eternal debate between traditional and modernist, but there is room for everybody.”

Tortelier will conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony with piano soloist Daniil Trifonov at concerts Nov. 1 to 3 at Heinz Hall, Downtown. The program is Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2 and Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2.

Trifonov, now 22, made a big splash in the 2010-11 season. A Russian native studying at the Cleveland Institute of Music, Trifonov that year won the grand prix at the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, first prize at the Rubinstein Competition in Tel Aviv and third prize at the Chopin Competition in Warsaw.

He's making his local debut with “a frighteningly powerful piece, a monster of a concerto,” says Tortelier, who's conducted two other performances of Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto.

The French conductor says, for him, melody is the dominant feature of Russian music, which is notably colorful and dramatic.

“I think the power of Russian music has more to do with melody than rhythm or anything else,” he says. “In many ways, the melodic vein of Rachmaninoff is very similar to Gershwin, whose parents had just emigrated from Russia.”

Tortelier will lead an uncut performance of Rachmaninoff's second symphony. It's long been one of the composer's most-popular pieces, but when the conductor received his first score of it from the publisher, he found himself erasing all of the formerly common cuts.

The conductor admires Rachmaninoff's unpretentious attitude toward composition.

“I think he's clear on that subject,” Tortelier says. “His aim was to write music as it rang in his head and offer it as it comes to him. I don't think he was more ambitious than that. Now, of course, he might have some troubles in the process, and we know he went through very difficult times. It is amazing to realize the modesty in his statement that he did not want to invent or create or break barriers, just write the music that came to him.”

Tortelier says it's important to recognize the generosity of Rachmaninoff's music.

“Then we can all start arguing whether it's too popular, or too romantic, or too post-romantic,” he says before laughing.

“I don't know. Did he break barriers? Who cares? You had ‘Salome' and ‘The Merry Widow' written in the same year, and both are fantastic works. It's not about being a pioneer. In order to succeed, you must be on target.”

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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