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Problems curtail sounds' potential

| Saturday, Dec. 4, 2004

Two contrasting pieces provide an excellent introduction to American composer Christopher Rouse at this weekend's Pittsburgh Symphony concerts.

Rouse, the symphony's "Composer of the Year," was interviewed effectively before the music began by guest conductor David Zinman.

"The Nevill Feast" that opens the evening takes a noted Medieval English celebration as an excuse for party music. The jaunty main theme -- very simple and repeated a lot -- is offset by contrasting ideas, one of which includes a bass guitar part.

Unfortunately, Friday night's performance at Heinz Hall suffered from amplification problems, including both extraneous and missing sounds.

The creation of Rouse's Second Symphony was decisively influenced by the death of the composer's friend Stephen Albert, a gifted American composer who died in an automobile accident in 1992. Albert wrote his violin concerto on commission from the Pittsburgh Symphony to honor the 1986 retirement of concertmaster Fritz Siegal.

The first movement's optimistic tone is a pleasing combination of Stravinskian rhythmic energy with the sounds of classic American symphonists.

Crashing sonorities mark the start of the slow movement, with a programmatic allusion provided by the metallic sound of a tam-tam being hit hard and rapidly with the butt end of a snare-drum stick. Oboe and muted horn lead in the expressive response, followed by richer textures and a transition featuring two sets of timpani.

The emotional center of the movement and of the symphony is a tremendous outburst of anger with thundering percussion -- bass drum and two sets of timpani, their impact sharpened by use of hard wooden sticks.

Rouse's finale returns to the energy and musical material of the first movement -- at exactly the same tempo -- but transformed by bitterness. The darkly swirling opening brings lead to angry and disjointed passages, with the two timpanists hammering the intensity through at the end.

Although there were some details that were superior to the world premiere recording, including well-balanced timpani at the end, Zinman's pacing of the outer movements dragged.

The performance of the Fifth Symphony of Jan Sibelius after intermission also was problematic. The music is a special masterpiece, intensely evocative at the start and building organically throughout the first movement.

Alas, under Zinman, the music sagged after new tempi were set. The romanticism of the middle movement was also fitful, while the majestic preparation for the final chords was puny in comparison to the music's potential.

This concert will be repeated at 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Heinz Hall, Downtown. Details: (412) 392-4900.

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