Pianist Alice Sara Ott the Bright Particular ‘Star’ in Springtime Sky in Grieg A Minor Concerto
By George B. Parous
Vibrant, romantic, shocking – the program of this weekend’s Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concerts warn us – “A primal, riot-inducing masterpiece” is the description invoked by Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre de printemps (his bombastic The Rite of Spring, Ballet in Two Parts) which takes up the second half of the program. Stravinsky claimed that his ballet was inspired by a vision he had of “a solemn pagan rite; wise elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring.” An odd vision, but there are legions of music-lovers who expect “odd” from this composer, if they expect anything at all. The vast legion of his admirers considers this Stravinsky work one of his best. Lili Boulanger’s seven-minute work, D’un matin de printemps (Of a Spring Morning), first heard last evening, seems to have found its way onto the program, for the first time in the PSO’s long history, simply because of the title she chose, and the well-known Edvard Grieg concerto because it was composed during the “spring” of the composer’s life and career.
Conductor Pablo Heras-Casado with members of the PSO
Conductor Pablo Heras-Casado is at the podium for this weekend’s concerts. A list of his accolades and the orchestras he’s conducted across the globe would require its own article. He brought out the orchestra’s usual tight precision and navigated through astonishingly difficult music with a calm intensity, if such a thing is possible. The PSO’s distinctive, individual “sound” was on display at its absolute best, but Heras-Casado is free of distractive, manic gyrations, and led the orchestra with a dignified and authoritative style that was most becoming.
As for the program, Boulanger’s short piece opened the evening and never stood much of a chance. The first few minutes were melodious and interesting, and showed distinct signs of originality, before wandering into banality. The audience applauded it politely, but even the applause fell flat and turned to silence when it became obvious that the grand piano was about to be trundled onto the stage.
Alice Sara Ott (center) responding to tumultuous applause
Once it was in place, guest pianist Alice Sara Ott made her way to the center of the stage, resplendent in a becoming outfit and barefooted. She received the kind of welcome only a PSO audience can deliver before she was able to take her seat at the bench. She became transfixed once Grieg’s concerto began. Her very facial expression changed, and, when she wasn’t playing, she fixed an almost unsettling glance at the audience, orchestra or conductor. Fortunately, she played for the greater part of the concerto, and played with a virtuosity that was spellbinding.
She plays, of course, with her hands perfectly placed and with slender fingers that fly with the greatest of ease through the most difficult passages of Grieg’s great concerto. The extent of her talent was probably best and most blazingly displayed in the second and third movements, the Adagio and the Allegro moderato, but she poured her heart and soul into every key stroke she made through the marvelous piece. The orchestra was up to the task of matching her dexterity, and played thrillingly throughout, but, like Ott, probably at the absolute highest level of their greatness in the second and third movements.
When the concerto reached its momentous conclusion, an absolute roar of applause almost shook Heinz Hall. Twice Ott left the stage, but on the third recall she accepted the inevitable and prepared for an encore. First, she delivered a lovely little speech, audible in some places in the hall, about her Pittsburgh welcome, then played a delicate, light, brief piece – the perfect type of encore, if we insist on demanding these “extras” from visiting guest soloists. Whether we should is another article
The second half of the concert was devoted to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. It’s divided into two parts, rather than movements. The first is titled “Adoration of the Earth”; the second, “The Sacrifice.” The two parts include such episodes as “Ritual of Abduction,” “Dance of the Young Girls,” “Ritual of the Rival Tribes,” “Mystic Circles of the Young Girls” – not an Easter bonnet in sight, and more of a hint that Tennyson’s “In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” But such things should not be expected of a musical work with roots in pagan Russia. There are spots where the chaotic is almost thrilling, where drums and bassoons shine as they seldom do. The orchestra played the complex piece with astonishing virtuosity. But then, how often do they play any other way?
Those who stayed for the post-concert program were treated to even more Stravinsky – selections from his L’Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier’s Tale), played by Dennis O’Boyle (violin); John Moore (bass); Ron Samuels (clarinet); David Sogg (bassoon); Neal Berntsen (cornet); James Nova, trombone and Jerry Branson, percussion. Those at the Sunday matinee with hear Wesley Nance’s Music for Five Trumpets played by Micah Wilkinson, Neal Berntsen, Chad Winkler, Betsy Bright Morgan and Wesley Nance after the concert.
For more information about this weekend’s concert, and TICKETS for the Sunday, May 21, 2:39 p.m. matinee, visit Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
Photography by Julie Goetz