PSO opens with a bang

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One year ago, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra opened its season in a bit of an artistic haze. Its top music leader, artistic adviser Andrew Davis, had just announced he would leave after his contract ended. Uncertainty abounded not just about who should succeed him, but in what capacity, as leader of a new trio of conductors or as music director?

Forget a year -- what a difference a season makes. The PSO has since named a music director, Manfred Honeck, and a principal guest conductor, Leonard Slatkin, and has renewed artistic stability. Even if many of us are looking forward to next year, when Honeck and Slatkin begin their tenures, that steadiness makes the present season more enjoyable -- off on a better foot.

The concert last night at Heinz Hall eventually did that, but it took a circuitous route. The finely tuned sports car that is the PSO started in reverse before putting it into neutral, grinding a few gears and then accelerating for a fantastic finish.

The concert began with only percussionists on stage. A harried Yan Pascal Tortelier, the PSO's principal guest conductor, rushed out on stage hilariously feigning that he had just awakened. He then proceeded to put on his shoes and tux hurriedly and conduct no one. To our surprise he got an answer, a brass fanfare from backstage.

It was all part of composer of the year John Corigliano's "Promenade Overture," a tongue-in-cheek piece that reverses Haydn's "Farewell" Symphony. Section by section the musicians came on stage playing a medieval sounding march. The piece does, however, settle in to an expansive and substantive theme as the musicians settle into their seats. Far from tacky, this was a great way to open a season, let alone a concert, and only shows that classical music doesn't have to be serious.

Pianist Alexander Toradze's first concert with the PSO since 1986 was on the bizarre side. His performing Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 began with the customary thundering chord, but theme by theme became slower and slower. The second movement crept along sometimes to the point of astonishment. Even the Allegro finale was plodding.

Toradze may be of the Russian eccentric tradition, but he confused slow tempo with profundity here. The reading didn't fit the work's tonal progression. Also, while erratic phrasing and radical tempos work in solo recitals, in a concerto the soloist should think of the effect on the entire orchestra. The PSO musicians, especially the winds, struggled to phrase the music at the lethargic tempos Toradze dictated. On top of it all, he did not exhibit much the sort of grace in his own playing that one would have expected by his setting of the stage for himself. He frequently slammed down keys (especially the top notes of runs) and generally didn't capture the beauty intrinsic to this work.

All was soon forgotten in a reading of Berlioz "Symphonie fantastique" that's one of the best you will hear. From his careful crafting of contours in the introduction to the balance of often unusual instrumental combinations -- including some off-stage -- to his brilliant handling of the multiple repetitions of the famous idee fixe, Tortelier was masterful. The French conductor captured so much color and liveliness in this piece -- clarinets, oboes, English horn and trombones among the chief contributors. Indeed, when the protagonist is "hung" in the fourth movement, one really felt it happen. In the end, it was a sweeping start to the season.

The program repeats at 2:30 p.m. tomorrow.


Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750. He blogs at www.post-gazette.com/music/classicalmusings .


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