By Yvonne Hudson
Once in a while, some audience members experience a performance from a limited number of onstage seats when PSO360 invites up to 200 to join the Pittsburgh Symphony members and guest artists. Audiences and artists again had the opportunity to share their passion for chamber music with the occasional PSO360 series again last weekend.
Appearing between his two stellar concerts in the BNY Mellon Classics series, Francesco Piemontesi brought his mastery of solo and chamber performance to those 160 fortunate enough to attend this fantastic PSO360 concert. One has the impression that he’ll return, so joyful was his description of his experience with the PSO that weekend.
A singular intimate encounter, PSO360 invites all to take seats as close as ever possible to artists at Heinz Hall. In March, patrons in a circle only three or four rows deep surrounded those performing. The up-close and personal setting provides glimpses of backstage during entrances and exits and views of all of Heinz Hall, where no one was seated in the house. Instead, ticket buyers entered the stage via steps from the front of the house. The instrumentalists’ setting was changed for the concert’s second half, providing wonderful views of the PSO instrumentals and soloists in full chamber music mode.
Piermontesi opened with a brilliant array of selected “Preludes for Piano” from the two dozen composed by Claude Debussy. Capturing the wide range of musical exploration and human emotion, the quartet of opening pieces was a charming appetizer. Themes conjured the beauty of nature, clownish humor, quiet contemplation, and rousing celebration—even fireworks. The pianist’s introduction enlightened, encouraging listeners to hear details such as the echo of the French national anthem, The Marseille, in the final etude.
The pianist reminded us that “music history unfolds in time. The composer doesn’t come out nowhere.” Thus familiar themes, motifs, and musical notions will frequently reach out as one composer’s work reflects their experience of others’ compositions. Appropriately, he pointed out that the PSO players “have in the their hearts chamber music.”
Next was the rarely heard “Sonata in A Major for Violin and Piano” by Cesar Franck, possibly last heard at Heinz Hall two decades ago, said Piemontesi. That said, the piece now showcased the new concertmaster David McCarroll, who joined the PSO at the start of the 2022-23 season. In this captivating performance, McCarroll delightfully and joyfully displayed his passion for chamber music. The four-movement Sonata provided an enchanting dialogue in this showcase of two stellar chamber artists in an unsurpassed pairing.
For the Mozartian half of the evening, the chamber orchestra opened with the vibrant “Adagio and Fugue in C minor for Strings, K. 546.” Here the intimate orchestra conducts itself. The player’s cues and collaboration are delightfully visible onstage when seated amidst the orchestra. It’s almost as if Mozart’s scoring of his original keyboard fugue to feature strings is a tribute to what top string players can do as they introduce and echo one another’s lines.
The opening Adagio provides the energy, and the entire ensemble passionately rides Mozart’s wave of discovery. Along the way, there are many nods to the composers Mozart studies and admired, reflecting how the long development of this piece took place alongside some unfinished works and his relentless musical curiosity. A rousing standing ovation for the self-conducted players reminds one of the typical PSO classic concerts with someone leading from the podium. Overall, the artists and audience seem to say, “Look what we did,” with this jewel of a performance.
More than icing on the layered cake of a concert, the final piece of artistry was aptly built to showcase every instrumentalist on stage. “Mozart’s Concerto No. 14 in E-flat major for Piano and Orchestra, K. 449, “was a magnificent, expressive finale. There are many styles for the pianist, who is ultimately the “conductor” in such pieces, facing the orchestra as Mozart did when he performed his works as a featured keyboardist.
Piemonstesi collaborated as a partner, particularly with the concertmaster McCarroll. From a close seat, the shared gestures and even an occasional wink were subtle yet precise directions from pianist to lead violist could feel voyeuristic as the happiness of the instrumentalist was contagious. Additionally, principal cellist Anne Martindale Williams was connected to this chain of artistic messages. The infinite variety of the orchestra’s lines and the soloist’s virtuosic moments reinforce the place of these works in the canon. The three movements brought featured instrumentalists forward, all grounded by the pianist’s connection and leadership.
Overall, ovations and cheers followed each piece as the joyful smiles of the artist were quite visible throughout.
While Mozart’s piano concertos have been performed by many with the PSO—notably by Maestro Andre Previn in the 1980s—the PSO360 format lets the audience enter that honored space onstage. Previn, one of the PSO’s chamber music champions, must be smiling down on this personal approach that brings the PSO and its audience closer.
The good news is PSO360 returns in 2023-24, announced Mary Persin, vice president of Artistic Planning. She created this fresh and engaging series in 2017. Perrin shared that PSO360 will feature “Violins of Hope,” restored instruments of Holocaust-era violinists. Audiences can subscribe when the next PSO season is soon to be announced.
Admittedly, this writer experienced something that felt full circle that evening at Heinz Hall. Previn’s performances with the PSO were ones I found mesmerizing during two years as program editor for the orchestra that has always thrived on chamber music. Previn was known for a program in which he played two concertos with his orchestra as an entire concert. The region’s music devotees and future fans are indeed lucky to have a universe of musical experiences before them. PSO360 provides a fresh perspective on what these artists do—one that can mold future experiences from anywhere in Heinz Hall.
Stay tuned as PSO360 returns for the 2023-24 season of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; hopefully, you might find yourself onstage with the PSO.