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Symphony finds 'lost paradise' in Austrian exploration

| Thursday, Nov. 27, 2008

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is offering Viennese treats at its Thanksgiving weekend concerts, as part of a season-long focus on the Austrian heritage of new music director Manfred Honeck.

There will even be an anticipation of the Vienna Philharmonic's New Year's Concert -- seen annually on television by an estimated 1 billion people worldwide -- because the second half will be devoted to waltzes and polkas by members of the Strauss family.

Honeck and the orchestra will perform music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johann Strauss Jr. and his brother Josef Strauss at concerts Friday and Sunday at Heinz Hall, Downtown. Lars Vogt will be the soloist in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21.

Speaking of waltzes, Honeck quotes an old Austrian saying: "Without rubato, it sounds German." Rubato means taking liberty with tempo, breaking strict time, often to linger on a few notes for extra flavor.

He's especially glad to be conducting the "Austrian Village Swallows Waltzes" composed by Josef Strauss, the younger and less famous brother of Johann Strauss Jr., who's called the Waltz King.

"Josef is actually regarded as more gifted. When you hear his waltzes, which also include 'Transactions' and 'Music of the Spheres,' they are a little more interesting, a little more typically Viennese. Josef had an incredible melancholy in his way of making waltzes that connects back through his father and Joseph Lanner to Franz Schubert," Honeck says.

The Mozart piano concerto that opens the program begins with a march rhythm, which plays a prominent role in his contemporaneous operatic masterpiece "The Marriage of Figaro."

"A lot of Mozart's piano concerti have operatic feelings to them," Vogt says. "This one, in particular, has the feeling of a curtain going up and different characters being juxtaposed. There is a feeling of communication that was really essential in Mozart's music.

The soloist says that although the outer movements are basically joyous, it's not "totally easygoing, happy and all smiles. In the development section, there is a moment of total loneliness, and when the theme comes back in, it is another world."

He admits he was skeptical about the concerto's slow movement when he was a teenager, but says he understands the music better now. "It was absolutely thrilling to work on it. The unexpected turns and psychological development move one so deeply. It feels like the melancholy of a lost paradise."

The pianist always creates his own cadenzas when the composer left none, as is the case with Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21. "I have to admit that I don't improvise, but I come up with my own stuff, my personal reminiscences of what I found important in the concerto. It's basically what Mozart did, in his own much more genius way, in the cadenzas he wrote."

One more contemporary element is a bit of a theme by Vogt's 6-year-old daughter, which he hides in the left hand in the first-movement cadenza.

Additional Information:

'Waltz with Honeck'

With: Lars Vogt, piano; Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; Manfred Honeck, conductor

When: 8 p.m. Friday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday

Admission: $17.50-$79

Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown

Details: 412-392-4900

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