Pittsburgh Symphony goes to the far reaches in weekend concert

Classical music lovers know that the genre can take you to the greatest emotional heights. This weekend's itinerary includes an investigation of Earth's most essential elements and a journey to the far reaches of outer space.

That's not just hyperbole. Conducted by Manfred Honeck, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra will play the world premiere of "The Elements," a piece it commissioned for the orchestra's Year of Pittsburgh Composers. It will follow with Holst's "The Planets," performed alongside a video projection of images taken from space. "The Planets -- An HD Odyssey" was produced by the Houston Symphony and created by filmmaker Duncan Copp, in cooperation with NASA and Jet Propulsion Laboratories.

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
With: Manfred Honeck, conductor.
Featuring: “The Elements” (world premiere/PSO commission); Holst’s “The Planets” and “The Planets — An HD Odyssey.”
Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown.
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
Tickets: $30.75-$124.75; 412-392-4900 or

But don't don your astronaut gear yet, as "The Elements" sports a wholly Pittsburgh flair. The PSO is performing the works of eight local composers throughout the season, in lieu of the one out-of-towner who generally comes here for the orchestra's annual residency. "The Elements" features five of those artists -- Patrick Burke, Bomi Jang, Mathew Rosenblum, Reza Vali and Amy Williams -- who draw on the region's history and geography.

Mr. Rosenblum, for instance, has composed a work largely inspired by metal. Titled "Eliza Furnace" after the Indiana County iron furnace, the piece features plenty of brass, percussion and some flute to boot.

"I just had a real sense that I wanted to have an industrial-sounding piece -- powerful, metallic sense to it," said Mr. Rosenblum, professor of music at the University of Pittsburgh. "I'm really looking at the metallic capabilities of the orchestra and also the rhythmic churning."

For several instruments, the composer uses altered tunings based on a 21-note octave. They represent a "standard tuning that I've developed over the years" from myriad sources, including Javanese vocal music and La Monte Young's "The Well-Tuned Piano," he said.

Mr. Vali, professor of composition at Carnegie Mellon University, chose water as the element for his piece, "Ravan," which means "flowing" in Persian.

"This is basically an allusion to the wide rivers of the Youghiogheny River, and also, the piece is very fast, so it kind of reflects that and the waters of the river," he said.

The scherzo has a fast opening section, a "more reflective" trio and a recapitulation of the first part, he said. Mr. Vali, who was born in Iran, also draws inspiration from Persian folk music.

The composers did not collaborate on "The Elements," so it represents individual styles under the umbrella theme.

"It's not like we've shared motives or anything like that," Mr. Rosenblum said. "I think it has a really good chance of working out well, and making sense musically, based on what I know of the composers."

Still, the logistical demands of a group composition presents obstacles, Mr. Vali said.

"It was challenging for me to think of this as part of the collective composition and as a stand-alone piece by itself," he said.

For instance, he recast the percussion parts among three rather than two percussionists, because other parts of "The Elements" had three percussion parts.

"It was a kind of redistribution of the percussionists, the instruments that they play," he said.

The other composers also refer to the themes of water, earth, wood and fire. All told, the governing connection -- music -- is perhaps the most essential element of all.

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