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Symphony slips nicely into unknown for sparse crowd

| Saturday, Nov. 5, 2011

The odd program that principal guest conductor Leonard Slatkin and the Pittsburgh Symphony performed Friday night didn't attract much of an audience to Heinz Hall. Symphony marketeers shouldn't have been surprised by the poor ticket sales because only one of the five pieces is well known.

The concert's journey began with "Double Play" by American composer Cindy McTee. It is an effective piece in two movements. The title of the first, "The Unquestioned Answer," is an allusion to Charles Ives' "The Unanswered Question." The composer's program note acknowledges Ives' mastery of the juxtapositions she loves to explore.

If "The Unquestioned Answer" was stentorian, McTee's second movement, "Tempus Fugit," was faster, with wit and touches of jazziness. It is well scored. The affection between composer and conductor at the end of the performance, a concert norm, had an extra dimension because McTee and Slatkin will soon marry.

The often wistful introspection of Walter Piston's Viola Concerto, with the orchestra's principal violist Randolph Kelly as soloist, was not an effective juxtaposition with the muscular extroversion of McTee's piece. The sense of letdown was furthered by the performance. Moment-to-moment emphasis did not add up to longer arcs of feeling and mood.

Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus," after intermission, brought the concert back into focus featuring the strings with harps. It reflects the composer's love and study of English folk music and was performed with some warmth.

Principal oboist Cynthia DeAlmeida was the soloist in Jean Francaix's "The Flower Clock." It is full of winning personality and effective contrasts. DeAlmeida's performance was marked by beautiful tone, agility and a genuine sense of long line.

Benjamin Britten's brilliant "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" concluded the concert with the twist that young people introduced the sections and instruments one by one as they are prominent in the piece. It's a charming idea that would work well at a children's concert.

For a subscription concert, I'd rather hear the piece without narration, as Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Purcell, its subtitle. Of course that way it would be more obvious that Britten's music is a work of genius and on a much higher level than every other piece on the program.

This concert will be repeated at 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Heinz Hall, Downtown.

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