PSO’s ‘Peer Gynt’ performances feature return of Julian Rachlin |
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Going with your gut isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. If one of the composers next up at the symphony had followed his first reaction to a request for music, the world would have lost some great music and he would have been a lot poorer and less famous.

Manfred Honeck will conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at March 22 to 24 concerts at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Hall. The program is Edvard Grieg’s Incidental Music for “Peer Gynt,” Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with Julian Rachlin as soloist, and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Caprice bohemien.”

Familiar, ‘greatest hits’

The celebrated Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen invited Grieg to write incidental music for his play “Peer Gynt” in 1874. Incidental music is the term for music to be performed with a play – between scenes and sometimes supporting action in a scene.

Ibsen’s story is about a young man’s travels and adventures as he at long last returns home where he belongs. The composer was at first turned off by Ibsen’s allegorical portrait of Norwegian character, although later in life he came to agree with it.

Grieg’s music for “Peer Gynt” includes some of his “greatest hits,” including “Morning Song” with its gorgeous melody introduced by flute, and the grotesque “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” Even first-time symphonygoers are likely to recognize these tunes because they’ve often been used in television commercials. But all of the pieces are finely nuanced pictures with great melodies.

Grieg produced 23 pieces over two years for “Peer Gynt.” He assembled two suites, each of four numbers, which were immediately popular and spread his renown.

Rachlin’s back

These concerts also feature the return of violinist Rachlin, who made his Heinz Hall debut at 17 in 1992, when he not only performed but also recorded the Violin Concerto by Jan Sibelius with Lorin Maazel conducting. Latvian by birth, he has lived in Vienna since he was 3.

“Everything changes over the course of a life, but somehow every time I’ve played the Mendelssohn Concerto – and I’ve played it a zillion times and conducted it too – it is one of those many pieces which always feel fresh,” he says.

Rachlin leads a very busy life playing violin and viola, conducting and teaching. He says about 60 percent of his concerts are from the podium. He is principal guest conductor of three European orchestras, but practices his instruments more than ever to keep up his technical prowess.

Last summer he married Sarah McElravy, who also plays violin and viola. Two of the weekend concerts at Heinz Hall will include post-concert performances with Rachlin playing violin along with members of the symphony in two movements of a string sextet by Johannes Brahms.

Rachlin says he was 12 when he first performed with Honeck, who was conducting his first concert. Their paths did not converge again until three years ago with the Israel Philharmonic. Now he’s excited at the prospect of playing a favorite concerto with Honeck and his friends in the symphony.

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