Behind the Notes gives PSO audience insight into music

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Saturday night is not generally the time when most rational, pleasure-seeking people are looking to hear a lecture. But in the middle of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's concert Saturday evening, Heinz Hall became a lecture hall -- and a very good one at that.

To be fair, the word "lecture" is entirely my own. The PSO's new Behind the Notes series is described in the program as an "exploration and discussion" of famous works, in this first case Richard Strauss' "Also sprach Zarathustra."

The idea is for the conductor to lead a presentation about the structure and story behind a piece. Everybody has heard the beginning of "Zarathustra," an epic opening made famous by the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey," but, as conductor Christoph Konig said, most don't know the rest.

Armed with a piano and the PSO musicians, Mr. Konig described how Strauss matches musical ideas with non-musical ones -- religion, disgust, science and the conflict between man and nature among them -- and called on the orchestra to demonstrate moments in the piece.

Mr. Konig was an insightful presenter, and he drew both laughs and knowing, or perhaps now-knowing, sighs of agreement. (This was especially the case when he said that Strauss had dedicated the piece "to the 20th century.") The demonstration had the nice byproduct of breaking down the wall between conductor and audience.

This isn't to say that it was perfect. Although I didn't time it, the lecture clocked in at around 40 minutes, longer than the piece itself. As a result, Mr. Konig gave listeners a lot to take in, and some sort of visual aid for the audience to follow -- perhaps an outline in the program or on a screen -- would have been helpful. And some of the discussion strayed into the technical; I doubt, for example, that everyone knew what a fugue was without a definition.

Still, it was an excellent first run at the experiment, and I hope that the PSO makes this a regular part of programming. With audiences dwindling at classical music concerts across the country, organizations should try inventive approaches to connect with listeners. The next Behind the Notes concert is scheduled for March 15, when Leonard Slatkin will lead a discussion of Ravel's "Bolero."

All of that was not to outshine the PSO's performance of "Zarathustra" in the second half. I would not be the first to point out that this is a bona fide Strauss orchestra, and Saturday was certainly no exception.

The sound world that the orchestra created alone was riveting. The performance was at times gut-wrenchingly beautiful, particularly during moments that featured the principal strings, and at other points earth-shaking, such as during the feisty "Convalescent," when the floor literally vibrated from the full orchestra's sound. Mr. Konig led the ensemble with physicality that urged on bold playing rather than stifled it, and he flexed his interpretive muscles with a nuanced shaping of tempos.

The Behind the Notes presentation took place only at Saturday's concert; the Friday and Sunday performances featured Richard Danielpour's fascinating "Darkness in the Ancient Valley" instead. In the same weekend that news broke that the PSO is pursuing a possible concert tour to Iran, the orchestra performed the work by the Iranian-American composer. The PSO co-commissioned the piece, which was written in the wake of protests following Iran's 2009 presidential election.

The five-movement work offers a rich orchestration, from harsh and metallic brass to tender plucking from harp and piano strings, with a preference for dark timbres. During Friday's concert, the percussion section met the vast demands of the music, from the skin-on-skin textures of the hand drums to the almost temple-like mood of the vibraphone. In the final movement, soprano Hila Plitmann showed off remarkable control during a ponderous, expressive performance of a translated poem by Persian mystic Rumi.

The concerts opened with Haydn's Symphony No. 22 ("The Philosopher"), which I heard on both Friday and Saturday nights. Mr. Konig took the entire work at a fast tempo -- an interesting choice, given that the movements are written to alternate between slow and fast. The fresh pace was welcome, but it rendered the performance soupy, particularly on Friday, and created occasional togetherness issues.

Elizabeth Bloom:, 412-263-1750 or on Twitter @BloomPG.

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