If variety is the spice of life, then the works selected for the first performance of the Sir James Galway Festival would fill to overflowing the seasoning racks of even the most discerning chef.
The sonic and technical capabilities of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra were pushed to their limits in the works that served as bookends for this sold-out concert. Happily, the players tossed off the challenges with flair and relish, leaving those lucky enough to be there cheering for more.
Joan Tower’s Tambor raised Heinz Hall’s roof another foot as its percussion-peppered score filled the air with all manner of hand-, mallet- or stick-struck instruments; the strings being relegated to the background, the winds and brass providing punchy support and commentary on the heady “eye line.” Even the unintended quote from Mission Impossible served to add a pop culture link to this marvellous buffet of world music rhythm and drive.
This type of angular, quick-change music was ideal for Yan Pascal Tortelier’s hands-on conducting style. Clearly, he has absorbed much of Franco Ferrara’s approach abandoning the baton in favour of jabs, pokes and reaches into the aural pools of the talented practitioners before him. Bernstein-like leaps left no visual doubt as to when the climaxes had been reached.
This approach worked less well in Strauss’ Suite. The sizzling bits were superb, the French horns ripped with glee, but the calming transitions and more tender moments were oddly empty. Here, a left hand that could relax, draw out and sculpt would have moved this reading from merely adequate to grand.
Between these high-decibel explosions of sound were two lighter works featuring the flute.
Sir James Galway took the stage and worked through Amram’s Concerto with surety but seemed content to remain on its surface rather than digging deeper, taking a few chances thus providing a greater impression of improvisation that the jazz-based outer movements demand. They moved, but didn’t swing.
Most successful was the “Andante Cantabile” where the unexpected appearance of French-Canadian folk themes added excellent contrast and welcome relief. Galway seemed more at ease in this soundscape, using his speedy vibrato and change-of-register skills to great effect.
Debussy’s Prélude began with dreamy promise as principal flute Timothy Hutchins painted the opening solo measures with a pleasing pastel, but Tortelier was unable to find the necessary ingredients to release the steamy sensuality of this masterpiece. Too many beats kept most of the ebbing fabric together, but there was never a sense of arrival, or passionate breath as the fabled faun pursued the nymphs through this ethereal landscape. The declamations of love and angst from the winds, supported by horns, harp and strings more “just so” than magical.
Still, the evening was a fitting reminder as to why the many delegates in attendance from the National Performing Arts Conference go to work every day, in search of their own memorable experiences. JWR