Preview: PSO goes Behind the Notes with Strauss classic

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In a philosophically themed concert weekend, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra will give audience members something extra to ponder.

After the PSO plays Haydn's Symphony No. 22 ("The Philosopher") at Saturday's concert, conductor Christoph Konig will lead concertgoers in a presentation about and demonstration of Richard Strauss' "Also sprach Zarathustra." That work is based on philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's book -- which itself tells the tales of Zoroaster, the Persian founder of the religious philosophy Zoroastrianism. After the intermission, the orchestra will follow with a performance of the piece.

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
With: Christoph Konig, conductor; Hila Plitmann, soprano (Friday and Sunday performances only).
Featuring: Haydn’s Symphony No. 22 (“The Philosopher”); Danielpour’s “Darkness in the Ancient Valley” (Friday and Sunday only); Mr. Konig’s Behind the Notes presentation (Saturday only); and Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra.”
Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown.
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
Tickets: $25.75-$109.75; 412-392-4900 or

The experiment is part of the PSO's new Behind the Notes program. The next concert in the series will take place March 15, with Leonard Slatkin discussing Ravel's "Bolero."

"The objective here is to significantly enhance the experience of listening to an iconic piece of music," said Robert Moir, senior vice president of artistic development and audience engagement.

Strauss' tone poem will be the project's first guinea pig -- a piece that is perhaps as familiar as it is complex.

"It's got an opening three-note theme that is instantly recognizable anywhere," said Mr. Moir.

The short beginning appears often in pop culture, from the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey" to the sitcom "The Big Bang Theory."

But after that famous opening?

"Then it goes on for another 30 minutes to tell a complicated story," said Mr. Moir. "It deals, basically, with the evolution of humanity."

Mr. Konig's discussion will explain the story of the piece, and how Strauss constructs themes that represent its characters, moods and plot-devices, said Mr. Moir. Rather than educate audiences, the goal is to maximize the enjoyment of the listening experience.

By the time audience members return from intermission, "They have an oral road map to follow, and they will know when they are ending the piece where the journey has taken them," said Mr. Moir.

Other orchestras have pursued similar ventures, he said. In its Beyond the Score series, for example, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra incorporates theatrical elements into performances that are filmed and, in many cases, uploaded online. In 2007, Sir Andrew Davis gave an introduction to Messiaen's "Turangalila-Symphonie" prior to the PSO's performance at Heinz Hall.

In lieu of Mr. Konig's presentation, the Friday and Sunday concerts will feature Richard Danielpour's "Darkness in the Ancient Valley," a work co-commissioned by the PSO and the Nashville Symphony. That piece, too, is philosophically infused. The final movement features the translation of a poem written by the Persian mystic Rumi, here sung by soprano Hila Plitmann.

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