Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra to give audience dose of 'American Fanfare'

| Wednesday, March 26, 2014, 9:01 p.m.

Ideally, quality should be the deciding factor in programming music, although we know the popularity of a piece matters a great deal, too. Orchestral seasons are filled with old European masterpieces, as well as contemporary compositions from many countries, including the United States, but American classics often get short-changed in the mix.

“We tend to forget sometimes how much variety there is in American music,” Michael Stern says. He's music director of the Kansas City Symphony in Missouri and is returning as a guest conductor to Heinz Hall.

“Our program includes a couple of absolute masterpieces, ubiquitous music, as well as scores not often done — even by a very well-known composer.”

Stern will conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at concerts March 28 to 30 at Heinz Hall, Downtown. The program includes Charles Tomlinson Griffes' “The Pleasure-Dome of Kubla Khan,” Leonard Bernstein's “Fancy Free,” Aaron Copland's “Appalachian Spring” Suite and George Gershwin's “An American in Paris.”

The conductor says the Kansas City Symphony is bucking problematic trends affecting so many American orchestras. His orchestra posted surpluses the past two seasons, and expects one this season as well. In 2011, it moved into a new home, Helzberg Hall in the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Helzberg Hall has the advantage of being a dedicated concert hall, not a multipurpose hall such as Heinz Hall.

He is the son of legendary violinist Isaac Stern in New York City. The conductor earned a degree in history at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., before studying conducting at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.

The least-familiar piece opens the program. Griffes' “The Pleasure-Dome of Kubla Khan” was composed in 1912 and revised in 1916.

“It was written in a weird, transitional phase from the end of the 19th century to just after World War I. We know Griffes was fascinated a little with Debussy and Ravel and this piece is inflected with a real sense of delicacy and color,” Stern says. “The ‘Kubla Khan' piece came across almost like a revelation of American music I hadn't studied much before.”

Stern classifies Bernstein's “Fancy Free” ballet as a neglected work, though American classical music had no larger figure in the 20th century than Bernstein. The composer led the first Pittsburgh Symphony performance of “Fancy Free” on Jan. 14, 1945.

“(Bernstein) was unfairly dismissed as a theater composer,” Stern says. “Of course, one of his great frustrations was that he wanted to be first and foremost considered a serious composer. He had a vernacular that always sounds a little unique to him. For me, that is the mark of a great composer. There was all sorts of music written between 1860 and 1890 which sounds alike. Then, you hear a piece by Wagner or Brahms or Berlioz. In the 20th century, Bernstein's one of them.”

The conductor met Bernstein many times, at first because his father often performed and recorded with him.

“We were very close. The obvious question is, how could you be a musician in American in the last 50 to 60 years and not be influenced by him? As a conductor, there was no one quite like him. He elevated everything he touched,” Stern says. “You could disagree with his choices, but never doubt the power, insight and commitment he brought.”

The Copland and Gershwin pieces are popular for all the right reasons, Stern says. “Appalachian Spring,” a suite from a ballet score written for Martha Graham, is a conscious effort to write American-sounding music in a clear language which could reach anyone.

The conductor says “An American in Paris” is “even more colorful than the Copland. Copland tried to reimagine concert music. Gershwin was just writing music. Honestly, the whole piece, and the ‘Rhapsody in Blue,' are such unfettered works of easy genius, it's hard to resist them.”

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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