Pittsburgh Symphony opens season with a musical sampler
Out of the many ways to begin a concert season the Pittsburgh Symphony has chosen a musical sampler which features new music combined with favorite pieces from past centuries, and includes a superb instrumental soloist.
Manfred Honeck will lead the opening weekend concerts of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s BNY Mellon Grand Classics season on Sept. 20 and 22 at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Hall. The program is the local premiere of Julia Wolfe’s “The Fountain of Youth,” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4 with James Ehnes as soloist, Antonin Dvorak’s Scherzo capriccioso, Camille Saint-Saens’ Introduction and Rondo capriccioso with Ehnes as soloist, and Alexander Borodin’s “Polovtsian Dances” from his opera “Prince Igor.”
New music is a perfect way to start a new season for many reasons. It will speak with the sensibility of today, one hopes, and has the additional advantages of arousing curiosity and encouraging the audience to listen with fresh ears.
‘Genius’ award winner
The symphony is one of seven orchestras which co-commissioned “The Fountain of Youth,” including the New World Symphony which gave the world premiere in April. Wolfe is a very successful and highly honored composer who was one of the founders in 1987 of the Bang on a Can festival in New York City. In October Decca records will release her “Fire in my mouth” performed by the New York Philharmonic led by its music director Jaap van Zweden. It is about a famous garment industry fire in New York City, but the title is actually a quote from a labor organizer remembering the passion of her youthful speaking style. Wolfe won the Pulitzer Prize for “Anthracite Fields,” which is about Pennsylvania coal mining. She’s also won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award.
Wolfe’s distinctive voice draws on many musical styles, from the driving energy of rock to the repetitive patterns and layered textures of minimalism.
Youth for Wolfe means “biological or physical energy, as well as an energized mind set.” The subject was prompted by the particularly youthful roster of the New World Symphony as well as her own reflections on reaching her “middle years.” The instrumentation of her new 12-minute piece includes four metal washboards as percussion instruments and some electric bass guitar licks.
Complete stylistic contrast with Wolfe’s music will be provided by Mozart’s Fourth Violin Concerto, written in 1775 when the composer was 19. The pairing of the elegance of the Canadian violinist soloist with the Honeck’s mastery of Mozartean style should be memorable.
Ehnes will have the opportunity to showcase his formidable virtuosity in Saint-Saens’ vivacious violin showpiece.
Honeck and the symphony will complete the program with two popular Romantic era orchestral pieces. Dvorak’s Scherzo capriccioso is brilliantly scored, with both irresistible rhythmic energy and a gorgeous waltz tune for contrast. Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, which also has brilliant orchestration, are so tuneful that one was “borrowed” for the old popular song “Stranger in Paradise.”
Mark Kanny is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.