Classical music is not pretty or delicate. That it's been pigeonholed as that in the last few decades has pushed it to the side as much as reduced music education and pop culture.
That's a refrain I've repeated many times in my writing, but Friday night's Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra performance stirred it up again. Or at the very least PSO music director Manfred Honeck and violinist Joshua Bell did.
There is simply no way to make the claim of quiet background music when Richard Strauss is involved. To call his works tone poems is a misnomer as well. His "Don Juan," "Death and Transfiguration" and "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks" -- all performed on the program along with Brahms' Violin Concerto -- are better thought of as film music in which the images are superfluous. For all Strauss' virtuosic orchestration (in an other work he depicts a waterfall), he gives a glimpse of profound. And Mr. Honeck's ken for late 19-century Austrian and Germanic music, it seems you can see more.
How? Unlike any other conductor I have heard or seen, Mr. Honeck gets that art music must often embraces life in its fullest and brings that out. Sometimes he overdoes it, but in "Death and Transfiguration," it lifted the music to a height becoming of the end of the work. A musical essay on the thoughts of a man on his deathbed, Mr. Honeck went to extremes to elicite the strains of suffering that Strauss constantly returned to. In what are often interjections became, in the conductor's hands, abrasive interruptions. Even the first hint of the afterlife was rendered triple forte. But that made the sweetness of the surging ending more touching in the ineffable way that only music can offer.
A sweet tone is the calling card of Mr. Bell, but these days he has had a touch of the transfiguration himself. His experience leading the St. Martin in the Fields orchestra seems to have had an effect on his soloing. With that orchestra he conducts with violin in hand, and he could barely restrain himself from doing the same with his bow in the concert. He also turned to face the orchestra on several occasions. This is a man who has a new outlook on the music he has played so many times and I thought he expressed it in a more personal interpretation.
Mr. Bell is smooth as it gets -- in a good way. He has the virtuosity and tone to skate over music most would slip on. But his interpretation of the Brahms Violin Concerto had an unevenness about it that spoke to me as a more honest and original view of the work. The first theme of the opening movement was agressive, and the transistions almost fiddle playing, and the lyrical lines were a little off-kilter. He may have had a string slip, but this was not the issue here.
Take the cadenza ending the first movement, when the violinist performs on his own. Mr. Bell wrote his. That is not unusual. But there was a vulnerability to his long, mezzo-forte and often hesitating statement. It was a little awkward, but I like where he was going with it. Perhaps to new heights himself, which would be saying something.
Mr. Honeck's "Don Juan" was a firebrand, full of life and of himself - the character Strauss and myth demand. And in the conductor's extreme shifts of timbre and volume, one heard the brutality, too, of the rake. The essence of the libertine, the vigorous motif brought on by the full horn section, was a sound to behold.
Program repeats at 8 tonight and 2:30 p.m Sunday.
Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1750. He blogs at www.post-gazette.com/classicalmusings. First Published June 9, 2012 4:00 AM