Second PSO ‘Summer Shorts Concert @ The O’Reilly’ 

Large Audience Fills Theater to Hear Jacob Joyce Conduct Orchestra in an Entertaining Program


The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra gave the second of three “PSO @ The O’Reilly Summer Shorts” last evening, and an audience even larger than the first of the series last Thursday was on hand to enjoy the music. Assistant Conductor Jacob Joyce was at the podium to bring out the best from the best orchestra in town, and the results were ninety or so minutes of the symphonic magic that the PSO delivers on such a consistent basis. Mr. Joyce has extensive experience as a conductor and concertmaster across the USA and abroad, makes a fine appearance in his style and manner, and it’s a pleasure to note he’ll conduct the final concert in the series, next Thursday evening, as well. And he’s been promoted to Associate Conductor with the PSO beginning next season.

Jacob Joyce (Photo by George Lange)

The program opened with Strum for String Orchestra (2006) by Jessie Montgomery, who began violin lessons at four and was composing by the time she was eleven. Currently the multi-award-winner is a Mead Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and her piece performed last evening was indeed a work of art.  “’Strum’ is the culminating result of several versions of a string quintet I wrote in 2006,” Ms. Montgomery has written. “In 2012 the piece underwent its final revisions with a rewrite of both the introduction and the ending for the Catalyst Quartet in a performance celebrating the 15th annual Sphinx Competition.” 

“Originally conceived for the formation of a cello quintet,” she continues, “the voicing is often spread wide over the ensemble, giving the music an expansive quality of sound. Within ’Strum’ I utilized texture motives, layers of rhythmic or harmonic ostinati [repeating figures] that string together to form a bed of sound for melodies to weave in and out. The strumming pizzicato serves as a texture motive and the primary driving rhythmic underpinning of the piece. Drawing on American folk idioms and the spirit of dance and movement, the piece has a kind of narrative that begins with fleeting nostalgia and transforms into ecstatic celebration.” The work captivates at a first hearing; Mr. Joyce and the 40-45 string instrumentalists made sure of it.

PSO strings feature on Montgomery’s Strum (Photo by Julie Goetz)

Aaron Copland’s Suite from Appalachian Spring (1945 orchestration), next on the program, was also work-in-progress for a period of the composer’s life. Originally commissioned in 1942 by Martha Graham and Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge as a ballet with “an American theme,” Copland worked through 1944 scoring music for 13 instruments. The ballet premiered in 1944, with Graham dancing the leading role. The following year, conductor Artur Rodziński commissioned Copland to rearrange the music as an orchestral suite, and it was the 1945 orchestration that was so marvelously played by the PSO last evening. A later version was commissioned in 1954, by Eugene Ormandy, and among the many recordings made of the music one can find the 1944 orchestration, conducted by Copland himself, in 1973!

The suite is divided into eight sections rather than symphonic movements, always a cue for timid applause between parts, because program notes sometimes assume everyone in the audience is familiar with every work played. But this far from marred the work of the orchestra, and from the composer’s description of the first A major section (“Very slowly. Introduction of the characters, one by one, in a suffused light”) to the last (“Coda/Moderato. The Bride takes her place among her neighbors”), the full orchestra brought out the wonders of the score that got a rousing ovation at the C major finale.

PSO strings feature on Montgomery’s Strum (Photo by Julie Goetz)

Robert Schumann closed the program with the orchestra’s splendid rendition of his Symphony No. 1 in B-flat major Opus 38, “Spring” (1840-1841). It’s also known simply as the “Spring Symphony,” and is, as the long title suggests, the first symphony Schumann completed. And he completed it in a hurry. He spent four days sketching the symphony, completed the orchestration by the next month, and it premiered a month later at Leipzig, with Felix Mendelssohn conducting. Schumann initially named the movements; “The Beginning of Spring,” etc., before returning to the standard Andante, Larghetto, Scherzo and Allegro. A novelty of the symphony is that there is no pause between the 2nd and 3rd movements, as the ending of the previous movement ends on the key of D major instead of ♭ major, forming a transition to the next movement. Somewhat in keeping with the theme of the program, Schumann had made “symphonic attempts” at the piece in 1840 before its swift completion in January/February 1841. Mr. Joyce and the instrumentalists played the symphony with the thrilling precision that seems to come so naturally to this outstanding orchestra.

Just as the summer seems to be flying by, so, too, does “Summer With the Symphony.” One “Summer Shorts” concert remains, next Thursday evening at 7 p.m., July 27. For program details and tickets, visit the PSO website.

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