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PSO players pour their hearts into special night

| Friday, Nov. 8, 2013, 11:52 p.m.

Friday night's Pittsburgh Symphony concert began in almost unprecedented fashion with a musician's speech in praise of the evening's conductor.

Violist Paul Silver spoke of the more than 40-year relationship Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos has with the orchestra, of his integrity and commitment, and concluded by saying, “We love him ... and respect him.”

The Spanish conductor is 80 and conducted a concert at Heinz Hall in which his vibrant mastery was entirely in service of the music and in which the musicians played their hearts out.

Fruhbeck de Burgos began by leading the U.S. premiere of Leonardo Balada's Symphony No. 6, which was first performed in 2006 in Barcelona to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the start of the Spanish Civil War. The composer, who also is 80, remembers that conflict from his childhood in Barcelona.

The 20-minute, one-movement symphony is imaginatively conceived, especially since marches play a large role. Balada achieves a fantastic variety of colors in his march music and arranges the sequence of those differing feelings with compelling freshness. The music moves from foreboding to grim energy to brutality. War's macabre dimensions co-exist with its heady exuberance.

Balada also breaks up the march music in the main section with contrasting masterials, including string writing of Mahlerian lyrical intensity.

The symphony's middle section is a sharp break from the mass movement of the outer sections. The individual's voice is expressed by solo cello, starting with a two-note lament which extends to fuller expression. After a brief return of war music, the solo cello's expression is picked up by the strings. Principal cellist Anne Martindale Williams was excellent and thanked by the composer after the performance.

Fruhbeck de Burgos led a thoroughly convincing performance, full of energy and nuance and in which his ear for balance was extraordinary.

The first half concluded with soloist Arabella Steinbacher, Fruhbeck de Burgos and the orchestra collaborating closely in an enchanting performance of Serge Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1. The conductor's balances were keenly drawn again, favoring Steinbacher, who has a lovely timbre, plenty of virtuosity and a gift for lyricism but does not have big sound.

The “Scheherzade” was very mesmerizing, the climax of a great concert with bold conducting and marvelous solos from first chair players, especially concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley.

This concert wll be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday in Heinz Hall, Downtown. Admission is $25.75 to $109.75. Details: 412-492-4900.

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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