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Soloist's technique striking in symphony's season finale

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Saturday, June 8, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Two popular Russian blockbusters provide the grandiose conclusion this weekend for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's season of BNY Mellon Grand Classics at Heinz Hall.

The concert opened with the more popular of the two pieces, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1, which turns up at the symphony every few years. Even great pieces can be overplayed, but there's always room to hear them when played by an artist of the individuality and superb technique of Yuja Wang, who made her third appearance with the orchestra.

The performance began blastissimo from the orchestra, but Wang was not intimidated. Instead, she produced torrents of big chordal sonorities.Before the music turned softer, she showed the impulse for a lyrical perspective in phrasing. Manfred Honeck, music director, provided a good ritardando for one of these moments.

The main section of the first movement is much faster and in completely contrasting character. Wang's pacing was more moderate than expected and not as impish. However, it was the lyrical passages in the first movement that were most problematic interpretatively. The soloist slowed the pace so far that the music dragged, felt static.

The slow movement was cooly beautiful, although soft strings hinted at more emotion, with a wickedly fast middle section which is marked Prestissimo.

The finale was extremely fast, too, and exciting until the pace slowed for the passage preparing for the famous double octave passage, in which the clarity of Wang's technique was striking. Yet it often felt that the orchestra was playing catchup as Wang raced ahead.

The concert concluded with Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5, which as the many extra microphones above the stage indicated was being recorded for commercial release.

Honeck's interpretation banned the ambiguity which the composer had to write to survive in Stalin's Soviet Union, an ambiguity which enabled the piece to be called “an artist's reply to just criticism.”

It was a performance of extremes — slow and fast, loud and soft — which was most successful in the third movement.

This concert will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at Heinz Hall. Admission is $20 to $93. Details: 412-392-4900.

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media.

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