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Revisiting the Romantic era

| Saturday, Oct. 30, 2004

The refreshing brio of pianist Lars Vogt and beautiful singing by the Mendelssohn Choir help make the Pittsburgh Symphony's return to the classics this weekend not to be missed.

The orchestra spent much of October on the Pops and other lighter concerts, the chamber orchestra excepted. This weekend's concerts at Heinz Hall take the musicians back to Mellon Grand Classics in a program of music from the Romantic era, beginning with Johannes Brahms and then devoted to Robert Schumann. Schumann also was a music critic, who proclaimed Brahms a genius.

Guest conductor Pinchas Zukerman was particularly impressive in the first half Friday night, opening Brahms' "Schickalslied" (Song of Destiny) with rich sensitivity. The Mendelssohn Choir sang this smaller masterpiece, written not long after "A German Requiem," with fine musical projection but often indistinct diction.

Zukerman was a particularly attentive and helpful conductor on the first half, leading performances of rewarding phrasing and including some excellent balances.

Vogt's local debut was impressive both soloistically and in the collaborative aspects of higher music making. His was a bold interpretation of Schumann's concerto, with usually taut tempi and a wonderfully fluent right hand.

But he was no less impressive in the subtler aspects of ensemble playing - not only with soloists in the orchestra but in what he emphasized in his part when playing in the midst of a tutti - when the whole orchestra plays. Oboist Cynthia DeAlmeida played with marvelous feeling and tone in the concerto.

After intermission, Zukerman was less focused for Schumann's Second Symphony, a piece he conducted on a Pittsburgh Symphony tour of Florida in 1999. Now, as then, he emphasizes the Mendelssohnian aspects of the score.

Schumann's Second Symphony is a special masterpiece, with problems for clarity in its orchestration, but magnificently conceived to combine countpoint with emotional intensity.

One of Zukerman's major miscalculations was holding the brass instruments way down - almost to inaudibility. Unfortunately, this does not serve the dynamics of Schumann's music, in which the brass put forward one of the two main musical ideas at the start, and make essential contributions to the many climaxes.

Zukerman also let the slow movement drag in the fugato, but began the finale with ample energy. Unfortunately, Zukerman's concept of orchestral sonority inhibited the final climaxes.

The concert will be repeated at 8 p.m. today at Heinz Hall. Details: (412) 392-4900.

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