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Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Presents Rachmaninoff’s Final Triumphant Symphony

Peter Oundjian Conducts – Violinist Alina Ibragimova Debuts in Prokofiev Concerto

By George B. Parous

Friday night, January 13, was anything but unlucky for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and their audience, when an interesting and difficult program was performed; a program that only a first class orchestra, conductor and soloist would – or should – attempt to offer. The second and closing half of the program, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44, demands a level of precision that makes its performance comparatively uncommon. That the concert came to fruition only after a few major hurdles were cleared gave the performance an added layer of satisfaction for all.

Prokofiev’s concerto, also on the program, with violinist Alina Ibragimova as the guest soloist, had originally been announced for the infamous month of March 2020. Ms. Ibragimova was actually in Pittsburgh, actively involved in rehearsals with the orchestra, when the world skidded sideways into a wall. There would be no performance of that or any other concerto or symphony for quite some time to come, as we all know, and the rearranging of schedules made this weekend the earliest date possible for the concerts to be given, with Robin Ticciati as guest conductor. But fate wasn’t quite done with the PSO’s plans. A last minute visa snafu kept Mr. Ticciati high and dry on the other side of one of the ponds, with a week for the PSO to find a conductor who was both available and had the very complex Rachmaninoff showpiece in their repertoire.

Guest conductor Peter Oundjian, after receiving a phone call Tuesday night, was on a plane the next morning to take up the baton, but the PSO had no reason whatsoever last night to apologize for a substitute. Mr. Oundjian, who has led the orchestra before, and is Conductor Emeritus with a fourteen-year tenure as Music Director of the Toronto Symphony, did a splendid job with the entire program. Indeed he was half the show. Oundjian actually looks like a conductor, and leads in an animated fashion that entertains without distraction. Whether he made an elegant upward sweep of his left hand to the strings, or jabbed a magic wand pointedly at the brass, he got the results he wanted, and the orchestra played with its usual precision every crescendo and decrescendo the evening’s music had to offer.

Conductor Peter Oundjian

Conductor Peter Oundjian

The program opens with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, an achingly beautiful, one-movement piece for a double string orchestra and string quartet. Last played by the PSO in 1999, the exquisite work was composed by Williams as part of the Three Choirs Festival of 1910, where it was first heard in the Gloucester Cathedral. It is quite easy to imagine this magnificently lovely piece ringing through a cathedral, and it resonates through the expanses of Heinz Hall very beautifully as well. Arranged for three groups – a solo string quartet, a small ensemble placed to the side, and the full power of the string orchestra – the opening pianissimo tones in B-flat major are only a hint of the glorious fifteen minutes of music to come. Parallel harmonies, moments of an echo effect, solos blending into duets into full orchestra fortissimo climaxes, an ending which fades as gently as the opening begins – all were delightfully delivered by the conductor and numerous instrumentalists.

First performed in Paris on October 18, 1923, Sergei Prokofiev’s Concerto No.1 in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 19, was second on the program, and brought Ms. Ibragimova sweeping onto the stage in a flame colored gown, violin in hand and a warm smile on her face for the hearty greeting she received. Her method is somewhat frenetic in the rather chaotic and demanding Scherzo: Vivacissimo movement, but she certainly recreates the “modern” sound the composer wanted a century ago. The remarkably complex, opening Andantino is a test of any violinist’s virtuosity, and she and the orchestra played the movement beautifully. Its moments of melodic loveliness come from Prokofiev almost as a surprise. The Moderato movement swirled the concerto to close and a storm of applause. Ibragimova, with an armload of flowers, was recalled a number of times before she bowed her belated farewell to her first Pittsburgh audience.

Alina Ibragimova, center, and members of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3, first performed in Philadelphia on November 6, 1936, was also his final one. A hectic schedule as a pianist and conductor limited his composition activities after 1918, and he died in California in 1943, just weeks after becoming a US citizen. The work is massive and a tour-de-force, one crashing climax on top of the other until the actual climax in the Allegro is a bit of a sonic boom blur. A more colossal display of a conductor and orchestra’s dexterity, stamina and precision on a concert stage we’ll leave to the musical doctorates to determine, but the impact it makes on an audience is undeniable. Total virtuosity is demanded from everyone on the stage, and Mr. Oundjian and the PSO are able to meet and overtop the demand with seemingly greatest of ease. A thunderous ovation, and it was off into a very cold night.

The program will be repeated tomorrow, January 15, at 2:30 P.M. This one packs a punch and not missing it is highly recommended.

For more information on the program and TICKETS, visit the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

Photography by Julie Goetz



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