PSO breathes life into old works

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The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s Friday night concert featured no new works, but in a way, Heinz Hall was experiencing the music for the first time.

That was certainly the case with Alfredo Casella’s Symphonic Fragments from his opera “La Donna Serpente.” The fragments premiered in 1932, but until Friday, the PSO had never played them. The first time really can be the charm:Gianandrea Noseda’s conducting drew both precision and a majestic quality from the musicians.

The fairytale opera deals with the trials that King Altidor must endure to prove his love for Miranda lest she turn into a serpent (the fun hurdles are courtesy of Miranda’s father). It has never been professionally staged in the United States, according to the program notes.

The music is gripping and fantastical; the Second Series of fragments (here, played first) moves from the Sinfonia’s rolling melodies and tension reminiscent of a movie score to the eery mood of the Prelude to Act III, to a topsy-turvy, percussive Battle and Finale.

During the prelude, the woodwinds conjured smokey sonorities in ensemble and solo performances, while Mr. Noseda built the orchestra to a jarring climax, punctuated by a robust percussion section. In the Battle and Finale, the orchestra came together for a unified, boisterous beginning that bolstered the rest of the movement’s rocking quality. Then, in the First Series, Mr. Noseda captured the story’s drama even without operatic trappings through thoughtful dynamic changes and rhythmic clarity. Here and throughout the concert, principal oboist Cynthia Koledo DeAlmeida executed dark, sultry solos.

Next came Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 5, performed by French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. The PSO first played this concerto in 1970, and it doesn’t appear to have performed it since, an orchestra official said. Here again was an opportunity to witness another rare Heinz Hall cameo.

Despite the work’s high technical demands, Mr. Bavouzet’s loose, confident playing made it seem more like an etude. His interpretation seemed to focus less on the wittiness intrinsic to Prokofiev, instead emphasizing the music’s more melodic qualities. For instance, the pianist downplayed the attention-grabbing glissandos in the opening of the second movement. Without compromising rhthymic character, his approach effectively brought out some of the work’s lyricism, particularly during the slow movement that already sticks out from the others. On a number of occasions, however, it was very difficult to hear him above the orchestra. His beautiful encore was Debussy's "La fille aux cheveux de lin."

Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 ended the concert and is a somewhat more familiar visitor to Heinz Hall; the PSO last performed it in 2005. Mr. Noseda’s deliberate conducting style and quick tempos made for impressive ensemble playing, especially during an exciting final movement. But he smoothed over one of the piece’s meatiest parts, the main theme in the Scherzo, and a focus on strings during the opening movement made for barely audible woodwinds.

Concert repeats 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

Elizabeth Bloom: or 412-263-1750.

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