By now the casual observer of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under music director Manfred Honeck might be thinking, "Mahler again? Haven't they played him enough?"
But to the die-hard patron -- and to most in the audience last night at Heinz Hall -- the resounding answer is, "Never!"
Mahler's music touches a different chord in listeners than most other composers. I have a compulsion to hear Mahler. His massive Symphony No. 3, the sole subject of the concert, is not even close to my favorite symphony -- until I am hearing it.
That's actually not as strange as it sounds. You don't really go around humming it, and the structure of the six-movement work is not the most taut (in fact, Mahler kicked around several versions). Further complicating things is its overreaching attempt to examine the world through many lenses: "What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me," "What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me," "What Humankind Tells Me," "What the Angels Tell Me" and finally, "What Love Tells Me."
But when you are in its grasp, this symphony can become a transcendent experience. Especially when you are guided by an expert who feels deeply for this composer, as is the case with Mr. Honeck. The lengthy first movement was a tour de force of phrasing and purpose. Every dynamic supporting the bigger picture, including placing a snare drum off stage. Peter Sullivan's singing trombone solo might as well have been another vocal part, and the storm episode blew in impressively. Mr. Honeck asked for incredible quiet at times -- witness the bass drum -- but it paid off when the full orchestra bloomed.
Oboist Cynthia DeAlmeida led off the second movement with flowing solo, and Mr. Honeck cultivated a wonderful lilt in the strings. But all become nearly static background in the third for trumpeter George Vosburgh from backstage. Again the solo was delivered with a bel canto legato, an almost painful sweetness.
The fourth movement brought out the actual singers. Mezzo-soprano Jane Irwin delivered a stout account of the "Midnight Song" from Nietzsche's "Also Sprach Zarathustra." Her amber tone let in light in a wonderfully opaque way. The women of the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh (directed by Betsy Burleigh) and the Children's Festival Chorus (Christine Jordanoff) followed with a bright rendering of the "Three Angels Were Singing," matching the bells.
In the finale, Mahler cracks heaven open to express love on its highest level. Mr. Honeck's strings shimmered exquisitely -- almost as if they were playing quietly but amplified. Add to that William Caballero's delicate horn solo and it was distilled splendor.
There is one person I haven't yet mentioned who had a gorgeous solo in every movement: violinist Andres Cardenes. This weekend marks the last appearances in his long run as concertmaster. We will never hear solos within works played with more grace and agility. Best of luck in the future to this commanding artist.
Program repeats tonight at 8 and tomorrow at 2:30 p.m.
Andrew Druckenbrod: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1750.