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Concert reflects youthful nuances

| Saturday, May 11, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Two musicians in the early stage of their careers held center stage on Friday night in Heinz Hall playing standard repertoire — American conductor Kazem Abdullah made his Pittsburgh Symphony debut, and Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti made her second appearance with the orchestra.

Abdullah's career moved up several notches in the fall of 2012 when, at 32, he became general music director for the German city of Aachen, where he conducts operas and symphonic concerts.

Johannes Brahms' “Tragic Overture,” which began the concert, showed the young conductor's strengths as well as areas for growth.

Abdullah selected a good basic tempo, one with both breadth and energy and which the orchestra played forcefully. There were some appealing details, such as an uncommon legato in the middle section.

The conductor's balancing of the orchestra focused on the leading line, which admittedly keeps the music's flow clear. Yet it was more than a measure after the lyrical theme entered on the violins that he encouraged lower strings to play and take advantage of Brahms' texture.

Abdullah went for a big sound, but sometimes merely got loud playing. In both the Brahms and the “Mathis der Maler” Symphony by Paul Hindemith, full orchestra balances were variable. There were times when the brass section was much too loud, but many others where its strengths were entirely welcome.

Abdullah did not, however, use the expressive potential of softer music to make for poetic and sonorous atmosphere.

Benedetti offered an individual view of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto after intermission. It was not difficult to hear why her career is thriving in Europe. She has presence, can draw a very appealing sonority from the violin and was exciting in the finale.

More troubling than occasional technical problems was that Benedetti's spell was cast for short duration — a measure or two. Then too, her habit of slowing at the end of phrases became predictable — except for when it was misapplied, as when the music slowed going into a fast tempo.

Abdullah and the orchestra gave Benedetti excellent support. Indeed, it's too bad the very soft orchestra that gave the violinist room to shine wasn't employed by the conductor in the first half of the concert.

This concert will be repeated at 2:30 p.m. Sunday in 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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