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Review: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra waltzes into new season

| Saturday, Sept. 24, 2011

The Pittsburgh Symphony continued its tradition of opening the subscription season with a concert culminating in a big splash of Russian music.

However, the concert Friday night at Heinz Hall began with a piece by Steven Stucky, introducing the symphony's composer of the year. He won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for his Concerto for Orchestra No. 2 and will compose a new work for the symphony based on Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring."

"Dreamwaltzes" was written in 1986 and is his fantasia on middle-European Romantic era waltzes. It takes a familiar approach, seeing elements of old music through a modern lens. Fragments of waltzes by Johannes Brahms and Richard Strauss exist in a modern sound world. The old harmonies don't hold. The instrumentation has a modern edge in place of romantic plush.

Conductor Manfred Honeck and the orchestra delivered an effective performance.

The most important sentence of Stucky's program notes for his pieces may be, "A composer in the late 20th century can admire the waltz from a distance, but he cannot make it his own."

No such aesthetic divide exists in George Gershwin's Piano Concerto, which followed. Right from the brash opening for timpani solo with percussion, Gershwin is irresistibly himself. His music paints a portrait of the excitement of life in a big city, and the loneliness as well.

Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder was the outstanding soloist and benefited from excellent orchestral music making. It shouldn't really be a surprise that Buchbinder and Honeck were so effective in quintessentially American music. Gershwin's music was quickly embraced by European musicians in his own lifetime.

Buchbinder brought wonderful rhythmic lift, directness and lyrical sensitivity to Gershwin's distinctive piano style. The long, bluesy trumpet solo, which opens the slow movement, was marvelously played by Charles Lirette.

The pianist's encore turned from Broadway back to his native Vienna for a Johann Strauss Jr. paraphrase. Its virtuoso embroidery may have been a Leopold Godowsky arrangement. If so, there's a Gershwin link, because Godowsky's son married Gershwin's sister, Frances.

The concert concluded with an individual interpretation of Modest Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" in Maurice Ravel's orchestration. Although Honeck took some passages very quickly, others were uncommonly slow. Uncommon, too, were some wrong notes by winds in fast passages.

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