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PSO, conductor in top form for trio of compositions

| Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012, 12:15 a.m.

Conductor Leonard Slatkin and the musicians of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra were in top form Friday night for a program consisting of three well-contrasted compositions.

Most interesting was Mason Bates' Violin Concerto, a world premiere commissioned by the soloist Anne Akiko Meyers and the symphony.

Bates, 34, is the symphony's composer of the year, and simultaneously a composer in residence with the Chicago Symphony. The success of his Violin Concerto is therefore fresh evidence that he is one of today's most promising composers.

The new piece's three movements each have titles: “Archeopteryx” (believed to be the link between dinosaur and bird), “Lakebed Memories” and “The Rise of the Birds.”

The outer movements are high-energy excursions, driven by the composer's gifts for inventive rhythms, lyrical inspiration and a combination of moment-to-moment persuasiveness and feeling of formal satisfaction.

Fortunately, the music received an outstanding performance by Meyers, whose articulation and tone were an unending source of delight. The slower middle movement was full of personality, and not only when the score indicates “coy, “gentle” or “seductive.” Slatkin, the principal guest conductor, provided the sure and sympathetic hands guiding the orchestra with the soloist. It was a thoroughly persuasive account of the piece, except for the final measure, and was enthusiastically received by the audience. This concerto will be played by many orchestras.

The concert began with a wonderful performance of Joseph Haydn's Symphony No. 68 in B flat major. Slatkin led a highly perceptive performance, in which the excellence of the orchestral playing was a real delight.

The first movement was well shaped at a vigorous tempo, with nuanced lines and decisive motifs. The ensemble was a little larger than chamber orchestra, right for the large space of Heinz Hall, but played with transparency.

The slow movement, which was especially well done, begins with a figure in the second violins that may bring the later “Clock” Symphony to mind, and is quickly answered by a loud figure which is more extended than the quick joke of the “Surprise” Symphony. The concert ended with Camille Saint-Saens' spectacular Symphony No. 3, in which the organ part was played by Lawrence Allen.

This concert will be repeated at 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Heinz Hall, Downtown. Admission is $20 to $93. 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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