The unlikely combination of WQED, National Public Radio and a four-foot length of wire brought me back to Heinz Hall for Sunday’s Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra broadcast. When I took my MFA at Carnegie Mellon University some twenty years back, I was a frequent visitor and great admirer of one of North America’s finest orchestras. Since then, life has taken to me to hundreds of destinations but not, yet, back to the city of Three Rivers (I have also noted that neither the Steelers nor the Pirates have won a championship since my departure!).
Also, until Sunday, I’d only managed to pick up Buffalo’s WNED-FM on my car radio, but detailed reading of my receiver’s manual and then attaching a metre of “aerial” to the prescribed fastener provided the remedy.
So it was with great anticipation that I flicked on the tuner at eight. In sum, it was an enjoyable experience despite the surfacing of a few non-musical distractions. But music first: the natters to follow.
Pianist Emanuel Ax and Pittsburgh music director Mariss Jansons were the two musical leaders in Brahms’ most successful attempt at intertwining the solo lines with orchestral parts to produce an essay that places thoughts and ideas miles ahead of flash and sizzle.
From the more than thoughtful statements between horn, piano and woodwinds at the opening, I was fearful of a reading that would dissolve in its own sentimentality, but Ax would have none of that. His sturdy, disciplined approach, backed up by Herculean technical skills put the performance squarely on track and more than made up for the surprisingly ragged tutti entries of his colleagues. The glorious full-bowed string tone brought back happy memories of performances past. The woodwinds were steady and the flutes added a brilliant sheen to the top; only the brass could benefit from a touch more refinement of attack and less presence.
The recording engineers gave us a nicely balanced (piano/orchestra) sound, but seemed to be so enamoured with inner voices (bassoon, viola) and low string pizzicati, that the result sometimes negated the composer’s own sense of balance and proportion. “Sound versus substance” would bear watching.
But Ax stuck to his knitting and kept the movement driving forward with purpose even as he tossed off the double thirds and ferocious trills with near-perfect ease while still pulling a huge spectrum of colour from the keyboard. Would that Jansons have plumbed the depths with him and reveal the underlying mysteries of the telling harmonic shifts.
The “Allegro appassionato” was delivered with fine abandon, but seemed too intense to foil the depth and breadth of the opening movement. Yet the strings at full cry were a pleasure and I only wished for unanimity of length when playing staccato with and about their woodwind colleagues.
The movement came to a resounding close, but just a nickel shy of Szell-like crackle.
Anne Martindale Williams opened the poignant “Andante” with a sensitive understatement of its theme that could have been put to good use by the first violins in their reply. But all things considered, this was the most successful movement in terms of merging the protagonists—especially beautiful was the F-sharp major episode with the clarinets.
I cheered the initial tempo of the finale only to discover a divergence of opinion as Jansons attempted to push rather than let the “grazioso” lead. As the variations unfolded, more unnecessary adjustments were made to the pulse of a master who uses rhythm like no other to vary his points. Accordingly, much of the detail was lost and (as was the case in other movements) the dynamic indications—particularly the hairpin swells—were only half baked, robbing the music of its subtle undulations.
The final poco più presto was off like a shot and full of verve, but nearly everyone gave up trying to differentiate the 16ths from the triplets and so more jazz than pizzazz ensued.
The Concerto surged to a triumphant conclusion but seemed more driven by power than persuasion.
Copland’s Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, an early work premièring in New York (January 11, 1925), was clearly the result of a composer in progress:
“Mr. Copland, even though he does present us with some second-hand Stravinsky … is nevertheless, on the whole, working out his own musical destiny in his own way.” – Lawrence Gilman writing in the Herald Tribune.
Gilman’s words are still true. It was extremely interesting to hear this piece performed in such fine fashion and respect and to have it recorded so well. Organist Thomas Murray’s tasteful contributions mixed beautifully with the wide dynamic and tonal range of the piece.
The stark landscape and interplay between the strings and the wonderfully flexible clarinet established a tone that would be amplified and enhanced in Quiet City many years later.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then not only Stravinsky, but Bach, Villa-Lobos and Ives could claim some ownership of the middle movement that also provides foreshadowing to Copland’s instrumentation genius (particularly trumpet and percussion) but temporarily loses its nerve by finishing on a too-bald major chord.
The hushed opening of the finale demonstrated the precision and intonation excellence (becoming exceedingly rare in a number of orchestras these days) of the violins. Despair was prevalent and revealed Copland at his moodiest. The organ added to the intentional pain through heaving and swelling that finally gave way to a Gothic march that might have captured Berlioz’s attention. And wasn’t that Ives’ Bringing in the Sheaves? No matter, the tribal drums, syncopation to burn and Flying Dutchmen appoggiaturas all combined marvellously for a big grumpy end.
Both Brahms and Tchaikovsky visited Italy prior to their contributions to this program with entirely different results. The latter’s inspirations resulted in an orchestral showpiece that just can’t fail to produce a smile with its unabashedly Neapolitan themes, songs and orchestrations. This work—predating the Tijuana Brass by decades—filled Heinz Hall with joy and fun that only a reading by Bernstein could have topped!
A COUPLE OF NATTERS:
The talk show section of these broadcasts recorded live from “Curtain Call”—PSO store—add little to our understanding of the performers involved or the music they are about to play. Hearing Ax and Jansons say how much they like working with each other seems trite. Likewise, where Ax takes his mother in New York is not important news. But, given today’s penchant for fluff rather than art, these types of “personal glimpses” will probably continue. What’s next? Reality TV where we see Ax doing scales in his boxer shorts? If the producers insist on these bits, could we PLEASE have them after the art?
An “encore” of The Swan was added to the PSO concert: Ax explained “both Annie and I had solo parts in the concerto.” That’s great and the playing was swell, (in fact Williams was much more open than in the Brahms), but it’s not an encore. The word means again. In years past (particularly at premières) whole movements had to be repeated “encore” to satisfy the sudden delight of the audience (when was the last time that happened?). In opera, arias are done “again” for similar reasons. Clearly, there’s no spontaneity in playing a piece that has no part in the announced program.;
So, how ‘bout just announcing “Something else” when the occasion arises. Don’t get me wrong, the more we hear of this calibre of playing the better, but let’s reserve “encore” for the real thing.
There, all better now! JWR