PSO's Scottish flavor appealing

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Classical music is a strange world, in which a Scottish-themed concert can have no pieces written by Scottish composers.

There were no bagpipes in sight on Friday night at Heinz Hall, where two of three pieces in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's outstanding concert nodded to Scotland, but all three were written by Germans. No matter: Confidently conducted by Nikolaj Znaider and featuring concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley on Bruch's "Scottish Fantasy," the PSO painted a musical picture that was as vivid as it was nuanced, regardless of provenance.

The first piece, Mendelssohn's "The Hebrides Overture," was inspired by the composer's visit to the western coast of Scotland in 1829. The piece is anchored by a mesmerizing, wavelike theme that appears in the beginning and doesn't quit. Mr. Znaider took the piece at a fast tempo, thereby carving a musical landscape out of dynamics that ebbed and flowed, although at first he did not draw sufficient intensity from a small brass section. The clarinets were impressive, with evocative, almost frothy playing.

If "Hebrides" reflects Scotland's scenery, "Scottish Fantasy" evokes its culture. The piece draws upon Scottish folk songs, as Bruch also did with music from Sweden and Russia and in Jewish-inspired works.

Mr. Bendix-Balgley, who was playing on his new 1732 Bergonzi violin, gave an expressive performance, his playing at once full-bodied then precise. In the first movement, he paired well with harpist Gretchen Van Hoesen. She was featured near the front of the stage -- a pointed reference to Bruch's use of the instrument, which is itself an acknowledgement of the important role of harp in Scottish music. This was an effective choice, highlighting the interplay between the harp and the nearby solo violin and creating complementary textures.

During a gorgeous third movement, Mr. Bendix-Balgley seemed to play with a Scottish twang, lopsided but lyrical. He delivered a powerful, chill-inducing interval that began the penultimate "animated" section. The fourth movement, drawn from a Scottish war song, was gritty and patriotic, although faster passages were occasionally less articulate. His equally impressive encore was the Gavotte en Rondeau from Bach's Partita No. 3.

Rounding out the program was Schumann's Symphony No. 4, which was rock solid from top to bottom. It was as if Mr. Znaider had control of a well-functioning volume dial, the quietly agitated cellos and bright brass being evidence of that in the first movement. The resulting dynamic flexibility seemed to bookend well with "Hebrides."

The solo-filled second movement gave an opportunity for individual woodwind and string players to come out of the orchestral quilt Mr. Znaider had woven. The third movement featured a pillowy trio, although its quick tempo forfeited clarity from the first violins. The fourth movement required energy to the last note, and Mr. Znaider and the musicians were in command until the very end.

With a performance like this, you could forgive the fact that none of it was actually Scottish.


Elizabeth Bloom: ebloom@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1750 or on Twitter @BloomPG.

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