Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra – ‘Mozart & More’

Interesting Program Offers Wagner, Strauss, Elgar and, of course, More Mozart

By George B. Parous

Guest conductor Sir Mark Elder, piano soloist Paul Lewis, and the great ensemble of talent that is the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, offered a brilliant program to a none too large audience at Heinz Hall last evening. The crowd was big enough to create quite a racket after the various pieces concluded, and at the curtain calls, but there were disquietingly numerous gaps of empty seats staring back at the stage. Was the night too cold and uninviting, with the announcement that it might become even more uninviting; would Wagner or Elgar’s names have made for a more eye-catching program title – as in, do PSO audiences possibly want less, not more, of Mozart?

Whatever the case may be, Sir Elder and the orchestra opened the program with a glorious rendition of the prelude to Act I of Richard Wagner’s magnificent opera, Lohengrin. The composer’s detractors and some admirers alike call the work, for various reasons, the last opera Wagner penned “before he went mad.” Nothing more ethereal than this prelude’s opening bars of quivering strings, building to a crashing climax before a moving decrescendo, could have been a more exciting first number. Perhaps the greatest composer of them all comes far too rarely to Pittsburgh, and if there were any disappointments in Sir Elder’s brilliant reading of the piece, in the minds of some it might have been that the rest of the opera couldn’t follow. But this is Pittsburgh, where “The Flying Dutchman” every 10 or 20 years has to suffice. Last night Sir Elder and the PSO gave a shining demonstration of Wagner’s genius.

Sir Mark Elder and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

That Richard Strauss came next and finished the first half of the program was a fitting transition. In Strauss’ early (and often later) days of composing, his “tone poems,” such as last night’s Tod und Verklärung, Opus 24, and his operas, such as Salome and Elektra, were denounced by his detractors as mere noise that tried to out-Wagner Wagner. Strauss was 25 years old when he wrote this “Death and Transfiguration”, a work that explores, in music, the mystery of death and what might lie beyond. A friend of Strauss divided his poem into parts – Largo (The sick man, near death); Allegro molto agitato (The battle between life and death offers no respite to the man); Meno mosso (The dying man’s life passes before him); and Moderato (The sought-after transfiguration). The English critic, Ernest Newman, called last night’s piece “too spectacular, too brilliantly lit, too full of pageantry of a crowd; whereas this is a journey one must make very quietly, and alone.” He may have had a point, but Sir Elder and the PSO brought the music vividly to life last evening just the same.

As guest soloist, pianist Paul Lewis opened the second half with the “Mozart & More” part – his Concerto No. 12 in A major for Piano and Orchestra, K. 414. Mr. Lewis was warmly applauded as he entered wearing what appeared to be a Chinese tunic suit blazer jacket – a fitting departure from the traditional tailed tux. The concerto is one of three Mozart composed in late 1782 for that winter’s Vienna concert season. The concerto is interesting and was finely interpreted by Mr. Lewis, Sir Elder and the PSO. There are rhythmic quirks for the violins, fanfares for the winds; humorous themes – a theme or two that sounds almost “out of place” until the soloist is led to different keys by the orchestra. This Mozart accomplishes by having the piano soloist almost drift to new themes in odd places, as if they were daydreaming. The audience was pleased enough to recall Mr. Lewis several times.

Paul Lewis and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

Edward Elgar’s 1904 In the South (Alassio), Op. 50 concert overture brought the evening to a close. At about 20 minutes in length, it was the longest orchestral piece Elgar had written up to that time. He labeled the thrilling opening theme, “Joy of living (wine and macaroni).” He adapted it from previously written music inspired, somehow, by a friend’s bulldog. Dan the bulldog also inspired Variation XI of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. The work is vibrant, full of life and vitality, with a virtuosity suggestive of a Richard Strauss tone poem, but original. A nocturnal serenade sounds from a solo viola, later recurring as a horn solo, returning over a drum-roll to the viola. A gentle melody develops to a final climax for the full orchestra. All this and more Sir Elder and the PSO played in a way that did credit to Elgar and the piece’s place on the program. The applause that followed was loud and long.

The program is one that’s highly recommended and shouldn’t be missed. Good seats for a great Sunday afternoon are available at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra web page.

Photography – Julie Goetz

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