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Review: Two symphony programs in one weekend a delight

Noah Bendix-Balgley

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Sunday, June 8, 2014, 12:45 p.m.

It was a genuine luxury to hear a second and different concert in the same weekend from Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra when, on June 7, they presented a mixed program at Heinz Hall. They gave a very impressive performance of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 9 the night before.

The program opened with James MacMillan's “Woman of the Apocalypse,” which Honeck and the orchestra performed May 11 at Carnegie Hall in New York City. The piece was inspired by the part of the New Testatment's Book of Revelation in which a woman, traditionally taken to be the Virgin Mary, is pursued by Satan but is rescued by divine assumption and crowned queen of heaven. The composer also took inspiration from the work of painters inspired by the story.

The 27-minute composition is a powerful experience. The composer's language is full of variety in melodic and motivic character, with impressively bold harmonies. MacMillan's orchestration is brilliant and precise. The music was very well performed and enthusiastically received by the audience.

The first half took a radical change of course when it concluded with the two Romances for Violin and Orchestra by Ludwig van Beethoven, with concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley as soloist. This concert provided another welcome opportunity to hear him as a soloist before he departs to become first concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic next season.

Bendix-Balgley gave a quite classically conceived and greatly rewarding interpretation of Beethoven's Violin Concerto with Honeck and the orchestra in October 2012. He played the Romances, earlier and lighter works, with beautifully focused tone and mood. Yet it was so “classical” that a little more romance wouldn't have hurt.

After intermission, the very opening of Johannes Brahms' Symphony No. 4 suggested a more emotional and nuanced performance than what followed. Honeck's approach was more dramatic than it was when he conducted this piece in June 2011.

The Andante moderato second movement featured wonderful lyricism, including lovely clarinet playing. Honeck also wisely emphasized the viola lines, which are sometimes divided and are an important component of the music's emotional richness.

The Scherzo was loud and fast. Honeck shaped the variations of the finale into a cohesive experience, with a superb flute solo by Lorna McGhee and outstanding playing by the trombone section.

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or

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