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America stars in composer's thrilling music

| Saturday, Oct. 31, 2015, 12:01 a.m.

The sonorous allure of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under guest conductor Leonard Slatkin was equally applicable to American and German composers at Friday night's concert at Heinz Hall.

Conrad Tao was the star of the first half in his personas as composer and pianist. Born in Illinois to Chinese immigrant parents, Tao moved with them to New York City when he was 9 and began studying at the Juilliard School.

The composer was 18 when he wrote “Pangu,” a seven-minute tone poem inspired by an ancient Chinese creation myth. It is vivid music, effectively scored, which sounds thoroughly American and was persuasively performed by Slatkin and the orchestra.

Nothing is more American or more New York than George Gershwin, whose Piano Concerto received a stunning performance Friday night. It was easy to hear why demands on Tao's time as a performer are cutting in on his time as a composer. This was far more than a virtuoso performance. It was not only thrillingly rhythmical, but extraordinarily sensitive in lyrical passages without being sentimental.

Slatkin was, as so often in the past, an ideal Gershwin interpreter. Time and again he found fresh accents for often overlooked details.

The trumpet solo that opens the second movement was played with perfect style and conviction by Charles Lirette.

Tao's encore was Elliott Carter's “Catenaires” in a stunningly high-energy performance, the first Carter performance at Heinz Hall in many years.

After the intermission, Slatkin gave an excellent and simple spoken introduction to Richard Strauss' lengthy “Sinfonia domestica,” showing the melodic elements representing the composer, his wife and their child. The piece is a feast for the ear, ingeniously constructed and beautifully scored.

Slatkin led an excellent performance, closely attentive to be sensitive and heartfelt, as well as grandiose and vigorous as the music turns family life into a concert drama.

Prior to the concert, members of the bass section of the orchestra came to the front of the stage to remember their colleague, Don Evans, a Brookline native who died Tuesday.

This concert will be repeated at 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Heinz Hall, Downtown. Admission is $20 to $94. Details: 412-392-4900 or 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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