Pittsburgh Symphony review: Concert forces re-evaluation

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Listening to classical music is a personal experience, but there is a tremendous amount of conditioning that affects what we hear. What pieces, genres and styles we listened to in our youth, what decades we did so and even where we live in the world all have an impact. Last night's Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concert was a reminder that you owe it to yourself to constantly challenge that indoctrination. In some cases you will conclude your original conception of a piece still reigns supreme, but in others, you might just convert yourself.

The program at Heinz Hall consisted of two composers -- Anton Webern and Erich Korngold -- who have been whipping boys for years and one that guest conductor Gianandrea Noseda took in a less than usual direction. Webern is one of the "scary" 12-tonal composers who rocked the musical establishment in the early 20th century. But his "Passacaglia" (1908) is an early piece that is still largely Romantic in nature, not unlike his exquisite string quartet "Langsamer Satz" of a few years earlier. To be prejudiced against Webern is to miss a work of astonishing contrasts: baroque form (the passacaglia was an old form, essentially variations over a bass line) and futuristically imaginative harmony. Noseda held a line here wonderfully, from the restrained variations to the turbulent, although I would've liked more volume from guest concertmaster Alexander Kerr, who otherwise led well.

Then came the case of Korngold. Long disregarded because of his years of composing film scores, he has been "vindicated" more as of late for his opera "Die Todt Stadt," but is still seen as a lightweight. But how would his Violin Concerto fare if you didn't know that connection? Danish violinist Nikolaj Znaider made that case, and in his sure hands the work was light, but not slight.

The concerto is optimism defined. Celesta and treble range woodwinds set the stage, expertly guided by Noseda, and the violinist does the rest.

No one person should have the range of ability that Znaider possesses. A ravishing tone across the complete register, virtuosity for the quick and the nuanced and artistic soul that allows him to sing out in the most compelling fashion. At 33, he already stands in an elite class of violinists worldwide.

It was an interpretation that forced you to re-evaluate the established position on Korngold, putting him far closer to pure than fool's, in my book.

Schubert's Symphony No. 9 is a glorious homage to Beethoven, whose own famous Ninth ("Choral") symphony pervades many a bar and is even briefly quoted in the finale.

Schubert's Ninth is known as "The Great," but Noseda sapped its grandeur with a quick-upon-quick tempo. Now, the conductor has good evidence for this. The manuscript has the first movement in cut time, while the printed scores give common time.

But here again it comes down to conditioning. I am so used to hearing this symphony unfold majestically with horns, here played smoothly by Robert Lauver and Stephen Kostyniak. But Noseda's tempo stripped the tension, especially in the first movement. The middle two benefited somewhat from his aggressive approach, but the finale was unsettled by it. Noseda's a top conductor, but here I will stick with my own conception.

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

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

Featuring: Gianandrea Noseda, conductor; Nikolaj Znaider, violin.

Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown.

When: Sunday 2:30 p.m.

Tickets: $17.50-$79; 412-392-4900.

Classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com .


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