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Review: Opera 'Elektra' salutes Strauss

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Saturday, June 14, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Composer Richard Strauss wasn't nearly as conservative as his posthumous reputation.

The Pittsburgh Symphony's salute to his 150th birthday culminates in music director Manfred Honeck's new suite from the opera “Elektra,” the moment in 1909 when he was at the head of the avant-garde pack.

The concert on Friday night at Heinz Hall began with a well-done filmed introduction by Honeck and musicians. Craig Knox's slide technique on tuba was amazing, but perhaps most fun was principal trombonist Peter Sullivan wondering what might have happened had Strauss' father played trombone instead of horn. Sullivan played horn solos from “Till Eulenspiegel,” “Don Juan” and the Horn Concerto No. 1. Great stuff.

Emphasizing the individual musicians was smart as well as amusing. The performance of “Don Juan,” which began the program, was more than filled with great solos, such as oboist Cynthia DeAlmeida's playing of the love theme. There also was wonderful individual playing in the midst of the ensemble.

Honeck led a very exciting performance, by turn impulsive and expansive. Of course, the volume produced by the horn section was stunning, with Stephen Kostyniak playing first.

The Suite from “Der Rosenkavalier” shared similar performance virtues in sonority beautiful phrasing. The music of the last act trio was slow, but the conductor pushed the next section to an exciting conclusion.

“Elektra” was written to a text by poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal on the ancient Greek story. The opera's expressionist sensibilities and harmony on the verge of atonality made it a touchstone for many of the 20th century's progressive composers. It was performed by Pittsburgh Opera in 2003.

Honeck's “Elektra Symphonic Rhapsody” lasts about 35 minutes, just under a third of the opera's length. The conductor also reduced Strauss' gargantuan orchestration somewhat, though no one could complain of lack of volume or color.

The maestro begins with Elektra's motif given twice, followed by music of various characters starting with King Agamemnon, whose murder before the curtain rises is the animating force for Elektra's obsession with vengeance. Honeck includes Klytamnestra's garish entrance, covered in jewels but with gnawing internal pains.

Honeck's piece is akin to one of Strauss' long symphonic poems and a welcome addition to the repertoire.

The concert will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday in Heinz Hall, Downtown. Admission is $25 to $50, $15 for students. Details: 412-392-4900 or

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or

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