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Symphony plays homage to some great classics

| Saturday, March 23, 2002

The Pittsburgh Symphony returned to classical music at Heinz Hall Friday night after more than a month on tour and playing pops.

Guest conductor Jerzy Semkow and the orchestra performed three very different masterpieces, two of which are popular and featured the solo trumpet of George Vosburgh.

The concert opened with a sweetly lyrical performance of Franz Joseph Haydn's Trumpet Concerto. The lively and tuneful composition was written in 1796 for a transitional instrument: a trumpet with keys like a woodwind.

Vosburgh played it on an E flat piccolo trumpet, which meant he was playing lower in the instrument's range than if he had used a standard and larger instrument. His round sound and gentle tonguing were endearing, while the occasional rapid passage was tossed off with disarming ease, even lightly. The first movement cadenza, not a standard one, meandered while giving the soloist opportunity to show his range.

The orchestral accompaniment was sometimes quite sloppy, for which Semkow bears responsibility. What are musicians to do when a conductor gives a perfectly good and clear upbeat and is then extremely late on the downbeat?

Witold Lutoslawski's "Funeral Music" for strings completed the first half with one of those masterpieces that continue to challenge audiences. It was written to honor the memory of Bela Bartok, a composer for whom Lutoslawski felt deep sympathy.

Although the program notes threaten a diversion to questions of 12-tone, Lutoslawski, like Bartok, didn't take that plunge, even though they felt the need to move beyond tonality. Both Eastern European composers admired Debussy and his use of tritones.

Semkow led a superb performance of "Funeral Music," which is in four parts and builds to a powerful climax. It was in many respects a cleaner performance than the apparently simpler Haydn concerto, with Anne Martindale Williams superbly expressive in her solos at the end of the Lutoslawski.

Modest Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" completed the concert in Maurice Ravel's familiar and masterful orchestration. Although symphony musicians who play a concerto usually have the rest of the night off, Vosburgh played lead trumpet in "Pictures," starting the piece and having several big solos, plus loud full orchestra playing.

Ravel's orchestration gives almost every musician a chance to shine, and the virtuoso members of the Pittsburgh Symphony took advantage of the opportunity. Semkow chose some strikingly slow tempi, which created effective moods such as in the old Italian castle, but which enervated energy in "The Great Gate at Kiev."

The excellent program notes include reproductions of four of Victor Hartman's pictures that Mussorgsky translated into sound after the death of his friend. Like Lutoslawski's Funeral Music, "Pictures at an Exhibition" is an act of homage.

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