Pittsburgh Symphony celebrates annual Thanksgiving concert series
When Manfred Honeck became music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony in 2007, the Austrian conductor experienced Thanksgiving for the first time. He enjoyed the turkey and pumpkin pie all right, but what really touched him was the warmth of the family gathering he was invited to join and the idea behind the holiday.
In response he decided to bring his own gift to the community by beginning a new symphony tradition for family programming over the holiday weekend. These programs feature the very popular waltzes and polkas by the Strauss family of Vienna, preceded by a concerto or other solo work – often featuring exciting young soloists making their Pittsburgh debut.
Honeck will continue the Pittsburgh Symphony’s Thanksgiving tradition with concerts Nov. 29 and Dec. 1 at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Hall.
Johann Strauss Jr. was widely regarded as the most musical guy in Vienna at a time when Johannes Brahms was making his home in the city. In fact, Brahms was a fan. More than once he replied to a request for his signature by writing a few notes of a piece by Strauss before concluding with “unfortunately not by J. Brahms.”
The second half of this season’s Thanksgiving concerts will begin with Strauss’ lively “Waldmeister Overture.” Brahms liked the piece so much he offered Strauss a little counterpoint for the violins when the main lyrical theme returns for the final time. Honeck will then continue with Brahms’ popular Hungarian Dance No. 1 in G minor.
The set of waltzes at these concerts are also associated with Brahms, as the program notes explain. The piece is entitled “Seid umschlungen, Millionen” (Be Embraced, Ye Millions), a phrase from Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” which Beethoven used as the basis of the finale of his Symphony No. 9.
The concert will conclude with three brilliantly scored polkas and the “Egyptian March,” which features colorful use of percussion.
The first half of the concert will feature the debut of Armenian cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan playing Aram Khachaturian’s Concerto-Rhapsody.
Hakhnazaryan was 22 when he won the Gold Medal at International Tchaikovsky Competition in 2011, and solos with leading orchestras around the world. Last week he was back home in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, to take part in a concert honoring the 70th birthday of his father, a prominent violinist. It was a family affair, with his mother playing piano and his brother conducting.
Khachaturian’s Concerto-Rhapsody is a very compact work, he says, “with some Armenian motifs, which I appreciate a lot. It’s a fantastic piece to play and also for the audience.”
With orchestral concerts Friday evening and Sunday afternoon, Hakhnazaryan will put Saturday night to good use by playing an extra concert. It will be one of the symphony’s 360-degree concerts at which the audience sits on stage all around the musicians.
“When I program, I always try to be diverse,” he says. “I am not a fan of conceptual programming. I like to include as many pieces of different genres and countries and cultures as possible to show the diversity and range and style of music for the cello.”
Mark Kanny is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.