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PSO eloquently slips between light, dark

| Friday, Jan. 17, 2014, 11:12 p.m.

While the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is looking at the possibility of returning to Iran for the first time in 50 years, it resumed classical concerts on Friday night with a program featuring the local premiere of a piece inspired by love of the Iranian people and Persian heritage.

Christoph Konig was the guest conductor at Heinz Hall and was impressive from the start, with Franz Joseph Haydn's Symphony No. 22, nicknamed “The Philosopher.” The first movement begins with a walking figure in the strings, over which pairs of French horns and English horns exchange slower lines.

Konig inflected the opening string parts with wonderful musicality, encouraged full textures and employed the divided violins with the utmost sensitivity.

The rest of the symphony was no less admirable, with bold tempi, phrases that sang and deft use of non-vibrato sonorities. Haydn is known for his musical humor, and Konig added his own — and silent — joke at the end of the second movement.

Richard Danielpour's “Darkness in the Ancient Valley” was commissioned by the Nashville and Pittsburgh symphonies. It is an important piece for the composer, who was born and raised in New York City to Iranian immigrant parents, because it is an ardent expression of his recent embrace of his ancestral roots.

“Darkness in the Ancient Valley” is an inspired composition, conceived on a grand scale and brilliantly orchestrated. It begins with “Lamentation,” in which lovely Persian melodic turns are contrasted with brutality and wailing.

The second and fourth movements, Desecration and Profanation, are violent, sometimes garish, and a distortion of the beauty heard in the first movement. Benediction, the third movement, features long, eloquent solo lines for solo cello.

The finale is for soprano and orchestra, a setting of a poem by the ancient Persian poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi in which a wife swears to not reply with violence to her husband's abuse. Danielpour uses it as a metaphor for the non-violence of the Iranian people during the Green Revolution. Hila Plitman sang it with rapt devotion, but occasionally so softly the words were lost.

The concert concluded with “Also sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss. Some of Konig's tempi were slow, but he drew marvelously sensitive phrasing from the orchestra.

This concert will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Heinz Hall, Downtown. Admission is $25.75 to $105.75. Details: 412-392-4900 or www. pittsburghsymphony .org.

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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