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Despite exciting season for Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, sales are down

| Thursday, June 19, 2014, 8:55 p.m.
Felix Broede
Conductor and music director Manfred Honeck

The many artistic achievements of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra during the 2013-14 season of classical concerts were counterbalanced by continuing problems on the business side of the organization.

In addition to their Heinz Hall concerts, music director Manfred Honeck, the orchestra and the Mendelssohn Choir made a very successful appearance in May at Carnegie Hall in New York City. They also added a new label for their CDs, Reference Recordings. The first release was an all-Richard Strauss program, which received glowing reviews. The next, in July, will be a pairing of Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 8 and Honeck's Suite from Leos Janacek's opera “Jenufa.”

But the symphony continues to struggle to reach a balanced budget, an achievement which must be maintained for three seasons as a condition for some major donations. Ticket sales are going in the wrong direction — down to 84,726 for 2013-14 from 89,634 for 2012-13. Symphony leaders have said that changes to the pricing structure will produce a small increase in ticket revenue even with lower sales, but filling empty seats is a high priority.

From the opening night gala with cellist Yo-Yo Ma to the concluding celebration of the 150th birthday of composer Richard Strauss, most of the best concerts were led by Honeck.

He took the leading role for Composer of the Year programming, which this season featured Pittsburgh composers, including the world premiere of David Stock's Symphony No. 6. He also led the first performances in early February of pieces by five composers presented in a single work. Such a melange of different voices also was used in Honeck's first season, but, though expedient in a way, those composers deserve for their work to be heard on its own.

Honeck also led a small, two-concert Mozart festival, which included principal horn William Caballero's superb performance of a new version of Horn Concerto No. 1, and a thoroughly entertaining program of vocal music featuring the awesome soprano Sunhae Im.

Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 9 in early June probably benefited more than suffered from limited rehearsal time. The musicians were really primed to play this great but too infrequently played score. More rehearsal would have led to improved balances and more nuanced dynamic, but the performance Honeck led had a more natural flow than is usual at Friday night concerts.

Three guest conductors led concerts at the highest level. Two by Gianandrea Noseda featured superb soloists — pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and violinist Joshua Bell — as well as important compositions by Franz Liszt, the rarely heard Faust Symphony, and Robert Schumann.

Yan Pascal Tortelier's single program in November featured the season's most exciting performer debut by pianist Daniil Trifonov and a fully romantic interpretation of Sergei Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2.

Spanish conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos led compelling accounts of Carnegie Mellon University composer Leonard Balada's Symphony No. 6 and Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov's “Scheherazade” at his final concerts with the orchestra in November. The June 11 death of this master conductor is a big loss for the musical world, and especially Pittsburgh, where he has been a welcome guest conductor since 1972.

He was eagerly sought by orchestras around the world because he was an old-time master, expert at presenting them at their best. To a pithy account of his musical personality by an English critic — a combination of German precision and Latin sensuality — must be added his extraordinary ear for orchestration. Fortunately, he conducted his fabulously imaginative orchestration of Isaac Albeniz' “Suite Espanola” at concerts in 2002 and 2007 at Heinz Hall.

Many other concerts during the season featured at least one performance that was truly memorable, such as Christoph Konig's interpretation of Joseph Haydn's Symphony No. 22 in January and Nicholas McGegan's Mozart and Haydn in late May.

Finally, the season brought the good and bad news that new concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley will leave to become first concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic. In just a few years, he became a beloved figure with both his colleagues and audiences. One can only be glad for him, and that the transition to his successor will be eased by the fact he will play two-thirds of the 2014-15 BNY Mellon Grand Classics season.

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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