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PSO's 'American Fanfare' soars on Gershwin wings

| Friday, March 28, 2014, 11:18 p.m.

Two tone poems act as strikingly different bookends for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's “American Fanfare” concerts.

Opening the program is Charles Griffes' impressionist “The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan,” a musical version of poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem fragment about the home of the Mongol ruler. At the other end is “An American in Paris,” George Gershwin's melodic and jazzy look at Paris of the 1920s.

They surround music from two ballets, Aaron Copland's “Appalachian Spring” and Leonard Bernstein's “Fancy Free,” in a program that provides a fanfare in its variety. The Gershwin tone poem is vastly different from the Griffes piece, but all four show the huge range of American symphonic music of the 20th century.

The force and heart of the Gershwin piece ended the night with cheers from the audience, and led to an encore of Bernstein's overture form “Candide.”

Guest conductor Michael Stern, musical director of the Kansas City Symphony, did a convincing and eloquent job on all the selections Friday night at Heinz Hall, capturing the rhythmic demands of all of them.

Those demands were quite different. In “Fancy Free,” for instance, the music moves from the boisterous theme of sailors going on leave to the dances they do, trying to show their worth to a lady at a bar. Those dances move from a hearty gallop to a quirky waltz and then to a Latin-flavored piece.

Swaying to the rhythm on the podium, Stern smoothly and energetically led the orchestra through the dances,

He really won over the audience in the second half of the show, when he offered a powerful verison of “Appalachian Spring” and a lively and jazzy “An American In Paris.” Both were great credits to the orchestra, as well.

On “Appalachian Spring,” Stern did a fine job creating great contrasts in tempo between the dance sections. While the work was first performed by a 13-piece orchestra, it has become better known being done by larger ensembles, and the Pittsburgh orchestra's offering was splendid. The brasses, for instance, gave power to the climatic “Shaker Hymn” section.

The requirements were far different for the Griffes piece, which opened the night. In it, Griffes portrays the palace of the ruler in an impressionistic manner that is rooted in the European composers of the late 19th century.

After a moody opening, Griffes creates a lovely theme that is stated and restated by sections of the orchestra and some of its principals, such as concert master Noah Bendix-Balgley.

Unlike the other three pieces, “Kubla Khan” did not have the sound of American folk music or jazz, but it helped create the fanfare by its difference.

This concert will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Heinz Hall. Admission: $25.75 to $105.75. Details: 412-392-4900 or www.pittsburghsymphony.org.

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at bkarlovits@tribweb.com.

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