Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra superb with Stock and Orff

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"Rousing" is the word that came to mind Friday evening in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's first subscription concert of the new season in Heinz Hall. Rousing, and also joyful. Though the evening's music contained agitation, even sadness, at times, the performers under music director Manfred Honeck seemed to revel in the sheer joy of making music -- music that was extroverted, raucous and full of vitality.

It was a night for this orchestra's excellent percussion and timpani to shine, with principal timpanist Edward Stephen meriting special mention for strength and endurance, but all the members contributing to the -- yes, rousing -- results.

Mr. Honeck began with a glance backward to Beethoven, the "Fidelio" Overture, then forward to a commissioned premiere of Pittsburgh native David Stock's Sixth Symphony, finally joining the Mendelssohn Choir on the second half in Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana." In "Fidelio," the orchestra seemed to be finding its way, with imprecise attacks and uncharacteristic uncertainty among the usually infallible Pittsburgh horns.

Once warmed up, the orchestra was superb. This is a year in which the symphony will honor city-based composers, beginning with Mr. Stock, whose new work may be counted a success in every way.

Justly so, as from the frenetic opening motive, then timpani competing with a lyrical theme in the strings, there was hardly a dull measure in the symphony's fast-moving 23-minute duration.

"Carmina Burana" was, of course, what most people came to hear. Orff's 1936 setting of irreverent, often raunchy medieval poems, is a classic that's hard to characterize: part opera, part oratorio, part ballet. Rhythm is the principal element. Melodies are simplistic, harmony is rudimentary, counterpoint all but nonexistent. The work appeals on the level of a primal scream, and with the enormous vocal and instrumental forces, is difficult to bring off without becoming empty or bombastic.

Conductor Honeck provided balance between steadiness and flexibility. The driving rhythms were there, but he left a little stretch room, especially for the vocal soloists but also in the orchestral dance interludes and introductions to choral segments. The Mendelssohn Choir, over 100 strong, was honed by director Betsy Burleigh to sing equally well in smaller groups.

While orchestra and choir comported themselves in traditional concert fashion, the three vocal soloists brought operatic dramatization into play. Baritone Hugh Russell had the stamina to sustain passages that sit high in the baritone range, and the histrionic skills to simulate the sexual interplay with soprano Lisette Oropesa. She, for her part used her light, clear sound effectively. A unique movement involves a tenor portraying a swan being roasted on a spit. Mr. Honeck gave the segment to Pittsburgh's wonderful countertenor Andrey Nemzer, who not only vocalized impossibly high vocal lines with unprecedented ease, but tore at the heartstrings for the painful plight of the captured bird.


Robert Croan is a Post-Gazette senior editor.


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