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Chamber players offer vibrant, evocative work

| Friday, March 31, 2006

The thoroughly outstanding Pittsburgh Symphony Chamber Orchestra concert on Tuesday night went from strength to strength, an especially remarkable achievement given its unforgettable opening.

Richard Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll" was first played in on Christmas morning in 1870 as a birthday gift to his wife who had recently given birth to their son Siegfried. She awoke to the sounds of this tone poem -- so full of dreamy affection and fantasy -- that her husband conducted with a small group of musicians standing on the stairs leading up to their bedroom.

The audience at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill heard a performance fully equal to the evocative story of the music's genesis. Led by Andres Cardenes, the strings were as full of personality as the winds, and gentle forward motion never stagnated. The elements of string nuances -- a little extra vibrato for sweetness at the right spots, effective but tasteful slides between notes, a little more or less weight at a change of phrase -- creates worlds of feeling and significance.

Wagner named his son after the hero of his opera cycle "The Ring of the Nibelungen," in which the horn is Siegfried's instrument. William Caballero played the long horn solo in this piece with the most-winning personality I've ever heard, taking his time with puckish articulation at the start and evolving to a more flowing style. Clarinetist Ron Samuels and trumpeter George Vosburgh were most notable among the other outstanding winds.

Somewhat incredibly, George Frideric Handel's Harp Concerto, Op. 4, No. 6, that followed was not anticlimactic. The musicians' focus and energy made this baroque music thoroughly compelling, led by the decisive artistry of soloist Gretchen Van Hoesen. Her playing was both crisp and rich in tone. She was also masterly in building the phrases of her long solo in the slow movement.

Cardenes and Van Hoesen then offered yet another kind of delight with Camille Saint-Saens' Fantasy for Violin and Harp. This rarely heard music benefited from Cardenes' mastery of French style that, with Van Hoesen's brilliant glissandi and strong phrasing, made the music's emotional world come alive.

The concert concluded with a delightful account of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Symphony No. 33. Piquant oboes, bassoons and horns complemented the vibrant string playing.

The Pittsburgh Symphony Chamber Orchestra went to Penn State on Thursday for its part in a Pittsburgh Symphony residency that concludes today and also included appearances earlier in the week by Marvin Hamlisch.

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