Guest Soloist Hélène Grimaud Makes a Fine Display of New Steinway Grand
By GEORGE B. PAROUS
Last evening the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, under the whole-souled direction of Manfred Honeck, gave a spectacular performance of a fine program to open the 2023-24 season. The orchestra was augmented to do full justice to the opening and closing numbers, and the resulting tidal wave of sound that rolled from the stage with the great precision and genuine awesomeness these amazing musicians always deliver, received roars of applause. Unfortunately, at least as far as the main floor was concerned, it was one of those occasions that brings out the cliché about the audience “making up in enthusiasm,” for what it lacked in numbers. What the upstairs looked like can only be seen from the stage, but the orchestra level at best seemed to be maybe more than half full, with lone vacant seats, and gaps of them, being distressingly obvious. It’s true that the audience couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by the performance, and gave up quite an ovation, but too many people missed what was truly a bravura rendition of a splendid program. Hopefully the Sunday matinee will make a better showing of support.
It began with the traditional opening-night rendition of The Star-Spanged Banner, accompanied by a chorus of singers dispersed here and there in the audience. For a few brief moments, patriotism rushed easily through the veins for the love of country, rather than the three ringed circus that’s presently performing around the clock in the nation’s capital. What followed was a truly impressive new composition by Gabriela Ortiz, one of Mexico’s foremost composers, and deservedly so, for her Kauyumari (“Blue Deer” – 2021), is six minutes of the most exciting new orchestration heard in some time.
Commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, to reflect on the post-pandemic return of the performing arts, the piece clearly demonstrates that Ms. Ortiz was working with great inspiration in composing her compact, thrilling work. She used as inspiration the Huichol people of Mexico, to whom “blue deer” represents a spiritual guide, and “one that is transformed through an extended pilgrimage into a hallucinogenic cactus called peyote,” the composer best explains. “It allows the Huichol to communicate with their ancestors, do their bidding, and take on their role as guardians of the planet. Each year, these Native Mexicans embark on a symbolic journey to ‘hunt’ the blue deer, making offerings in gratitude for having been granted access to the invisible world, through which they also are able to heal the wounds of the soul.”
The work commands attention from the brief moment of faint bass rumbling and light percussive sounds with which it begins, to the expressive brass and winds that quickly bring the massive orchestration to life. A solo piccolo introduces the flavor of a Mexican folk dance, but then the work builds in immensity until the crashing final notes that lifted people out of their seats. Not being familiar with Huichol folklore, this imagination perceived nothing evocative of any colored deer, blue or otherwise. But the bold and brilliant short work received, again, a splendid performance by Maestro Honeck and his huge group of instrumentalists. Honeck conducted with his usual composure ratcheted up several notches last evening. No conductor could keep from being moved deeply while surrounded by such swirling sonic perfection as he was through the course of the evening.
Robert Schumann’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in A Minor, Opus 54, finished the first half of the program, and it, too, promised from the start to be an extraordinary performance. Men wheeled the new Steinway grand onto the stage, gleaming in the lights, and weighing 990 magnificent pounds, Maestro Honeck estimated from the looks of the thing. Guest soloist Hélène Grimaud made her entrance to quite an ovation, and the pianist/wildlife conservationist/human rights activist and writer beamed her appreciation back to the audience, before taking her place at the piano. Composed between 1841 and 1845, Schumann’s only piano concerto is an orchestral favorite, performed last by the PSO as recently as 2022, with Martin Helmchen as the soloist.
Structured in three movements, after the first, the Allegro affettuoso (A minor), there is no break between the second, the Intermezzo: Andantino grazioso (F major), and the third, Allegro vivace (A major). Ms. Grimaud, as one audience member was overheard to comment, “played the heck out of it,” which, indeed, she did. For the ear was the tremendous orchestration; for the ear and eye was her remarkable technique – it was our great luck to be able to focus on her hands throughout the concerto. She gained dexterity and virtuosity as the concerto progressed, and it was a joy to see her laser speed fingers work their magic from start to finish. She received an ovation that recalled her several times to graciously bow her acknowledgments, and the audience persisted in hopes of an encore. What exactly they hoped she might play after such a display was a mystery, but the applause didn’t stop even as the men came to roll the 990 pounds of Steinway grand back to their home behind the scenes, and it was clear that Ms. Grimaud had made her final exit.
Sergei Rachmaninoff had the second half of the program to himself – his magnificent Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, Opus 27 made an hour seem like twenty minutes. The sheer beauty of the four-movement symphony makes it one of the composer’s best known and most frequently performed works. Anyone who found themselves mysteriously humming along in spots might have been around when pop singer Eric Carmen’s 1976 song, “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again,” was popular, or heard other bits that have been used in various films and television shows. Detailed analysis of the piece would easily fill a book, and to say that it received a stellar performance by Honeck and our world-class orchestra will suffice.
The program will be repeated at tomorrow’s matinee, hopefully, as mentioned, to a larger audience. You can buy tickets, see upcoming events and more at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra website.