Pittsburgh Symphony tells fine stories

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The funny thing about Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade" is that it doesn't actually tell a story. The piece is about the titular Scheherazade, who over 1,001 nights recounts tales to the sultan to save her own life. It has plenty of material to work with, but the piece draws its name more from "exotic" musical material than the sultana's specific anecdotes.

Still, music can tell a story of its own, as the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, led by conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, showed in performing "Scheherazade" Friday night in Heinz Hall.

Apparently, a good story needs no book. Mr. Fruhbeck is now four score young, but he used no score to conduct the piece. Ensemble playing was characterized by perfectly timed crescendos, just-right tempo changes, and dynamics so soft you had to lean in to hear, even (or especially) from the impressive percussion section. Individual solos were generally bold -- the woodwinds would have made snake charmers jealous, and concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley was simultaneously mysterious and clear. Mr. Fruhbeck did not hold the brass section back during the piece's most majestic parts, especially in the finale, and the players wowed without overpowering. The concert started with the American premiere of Carnegie Mellon University professor Leonardo Balada's Symphony No. 6 ("Symphony of Sorrows"), included as part of the PSO's Year of Pittsburgh Composers. The one-movement symphony is based on the anthems of the two sides of the Spanish Civil War.

Pittsburgh Symphony's 'Schedherazade'

  • With: Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, guest conductor; Arabella Steinbacher, violinist.
  • Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown.
  • When: 8 tonight, 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
  • Tickets: $25.75-$109.75; www.pittsburghsymphony.org or 412-392-4900.

The work, which does not sound "typically" Spanish, began with brass, strings and percussion rattling together in a violent introduction, followed by the strings playing haunting chords and creating nails-on-chalkboard-esque textures.

 

The piece cultivated a sense of urgency, with rapid notes from the trumpet, screeching from the strings that had a rodents-meets-sirens quality, and heavy percussion. Sections offered occasional respite from the deluge, but everybody joined in on the darkness.

The cello provided contrast with its own sad, isolated solo, here sympathetically played by Anne Martindale Williams. The orchestra came together for an ending that didn't resolve, a seemingly pointed reference to the lasting damage war causes.

The symphony's most potent parts were found as often in those quiet moments as in the loud screaming. Sometimes, the orchestral coloring or loudness was almost too obvious a reference to the conflict. Still, the piece was thoughtful and thought-provoking, and it was with much success that Mr. Balada incorporated several contemporary devices.

Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1, played by German violinist Arabella Steinbacher, ended the first half. In the first movement, she featured a smooth, easy (in the way you knew it couldn't have been) sound, blending well with the orchestra without at first sacrificing preeminence. Still, it was taken too slow, and the balance that characterized the opening movement was lost in the others. Ms. Steinbacher was drowned out by the orchestra, overwhelmed even by the harp, and she missed the mark on the blade-like glissandi of the fast movement. Her buzzy drone and lyrical high notes were gorgeous, just a bit hard to hear. When you're listening to a story, musical or otherwise, you don't want to miss a moment.


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

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