Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Manfred Honeck Give a Taste of the Season to Come

Renée Fleming is Guest Soloist of the “Now Is The Time Gala”

By George B. Parous

Despite the rain and the maze of scaffolding in front of the building, a mob found its way into Heinz Hall last evening to hear the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Manfred Honeck, in a “gala event” that was truly a gala in all senses of the word. A grand dinner before, a grand display of desserts afterward, and in the middle, an eclectic program played as only Honeck and his instrumentalists can play it. Conditions did slow down the seating and preparing for the concert, and the announced 7:30 start time was long gone by the time Maestro Honeck made his way to the podium, accompanied by thunderous applause. The elegantly dressed audience knew they were to hear a “gala” performance and did not mind the delay. They were paid back threefold for their good-natured wait.

After the lights dimmed and Honeck took his first bows to the large and enthusiastic crowd, the first piece played was a polonaise from Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s opera, Eugene Onegin, delivered with that smoothness and fine-tuned excitement the orchestra delivers. The music was vividly atmospheric and got the evening off to an excellent start, and was followed by a very contemporary contrast, “Ring Shout,from Carlos Simon’s Four Black American Dances (2023). A “ring shout,” as the program best explains, “is an ecstatic, transcendent religious ritual, first practiced by enslaved Africans in the West Indies and the United States, in which worshippers move in a circle while shuffling and stomping their feet and clapping their hands.” Like the operatic excerpt before it, Simon’s piece was heartily received by the audience.

Conductor Manfred Honeck (Center) & members of the PSO.

Probably the most interesting of the pre-Flemming pieces came from Aram Khachaturian, and his Suite No. 2 from Spartacus; I. Adagio for Spartacus and Phrygia and IV. Dance of the Pirates (1950-54). The ballet’s sweeping first movement, (also known as the “Love Theme from Spartacus”), contrasted well against the fourth, where the word “drunken” would best describe the dancing of the pirates. This was one of the conductor’s and orchestra’s best shows of the evening, in an evening that was, as usual, quite generous when it came to showing them at their very best.

Renée Fleming, members of the PSO, Conductor Honeck.

The moment most were waiting for came when Renée Fleming swept onto the stage and received a rousing ovation. History will remember her as a great prima donna of the late twentieth, early twenty-first centuries’ “golden age” of this era (and every time frame in opera has such an age). That she’s had a long and distinguished career full of many brilliant highlights is world renown news, and that she can still make a thrilling impression in a carefully chosen repertoire is absolutely undeniable. Three cheers to her for bringing to Pittsburgh the splendid “Io son l’umile ancella” aria from Francesco Cilèa’s sadly neglected Adriana Lecouvreur. It was the best of her offerings and the best sung by far. “O mio babbino caro,” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi is so overly familiar as to be almost an audition piece, but a lovely one, and Fleming sang it well. She also tried to revive interest with an aria from the “other” La Bohème, the one by Ruggero Leoncavallo, but the opera has never stirred much attention away from the Puccini version, and fared only a little better last night. Persistent applause brought her back for a Richard Strauss song encore.

Gloria Isabel Ramons Triano composed amazon for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 2021, and it was on the program again last night. The composer best describes the intent and successful impression of the piece: “I wrote this music moved by the desire to capture visions related to the mythical figure of the Amazons. We all have images of those high-spirited women, riding bravely across mysterious landscapes, fighting and winning, as strong and tough as men, vigorous and effective, yet who also show their feminine emotions and have moments of reflection, sadness or tenderness, as well as a spiritual and magical dimension.” She successfully instills these visions into her music, and the orchestra found every detail under Mr. Honeck’s direction.

Ms. Fleming then re-entered in a blaze of dazzling copper rather than the lavender gown she had worn on her first appearance. There followed, briefly, due to space, John Kander’s “Letter from Sullivan Ballou,” Arturo Márqez’s “Conga del Fuego Nuevo,” Meredith Wilson’s “Till There Was You,” (from The Music Man), and Andrew Lippa’s The Diva. Ms. Fleming lent her vocals to all but the Márquez number, then she and the orchestra brought the evening to a rousing close with “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” from Richard Rodgers’ Carousel.

Last night was but a sample of what’s ahead in the PSO’s 2023-2024 season, which begins this Friday, September 29, with The Sounds of NOW. You can see the full season, subscribe, choose your own subscription, purchase tickets and more at Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

Photography by Julie Goetz

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