Concert review: Camilo shines with Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

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The two most distinctive pieces played on the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's Friday night program couldn't have been more different from each other.

Perhaps that's a bit of an exaggeration, as both Michel Camilo's Piano Concerto No. 2 ("Tenerife"), with the composer as soloist, and Ravel's "Bolero" do have significant Spanish influences. Still, Mr. Camilo and his concerto were making their Heinz Hall debuts; "Bolero," on the other hand, has been played to death. (To be fair, that's the point, at least within the piece itself.) The works served as the high points in a packed program conducted by Leonard Slatkin.

The tour-de-force piano concerto is dedicated to Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands in Spain. In his program notes, the Dominican jazz pianist and composer wrote, "My intention was to compose about its great majesty, reflect on the warmth of its people, and portray the vibrant light so full of contrasting texture and color I have always perceived there."

Given that charge, the piece's often dark opening movement might surprise. It is inspired by a volcano on the island, and it did erupt between a militaristic orchestra and a challenging, beehive-like piano part, during which Mr. Camilo showed off his muscular, virtuosic playing and jazz background. The second movement softened the edge. The stirring piano part created an intimacy worthy of a jazz club. The mood was enhanced by suspended cymbals and solo cello played by Anne Martindale Williams, which together created an eeriness reminiscent of a summer evening. The final movement, with African and Spanish influences, was percussive and rocking, with a continuation of shifting meters heard earlier.

Mr. Camilo's prodigious performance and genre-blurring piece set the stage well for "Bolero," performed last. Mr. Slatkin's comparatively fast tempo and the orchestra's impossibly quiet dynamic at the opening made "Bolero" stick out, despite its frequent performance and by-design redundancy. Placed in the middle of the orchestra, principal percussionist Andrew Reamer was tremendous on snare drum. His full, even tone and rock-solid rhythm at all dynamics created intrinsic musicality. Mr. Slatkin barely moved for much of the piece and drew out impossibly quiet dynamics in the opening. The boisterous, carnival-like ending induced chills.

The rest of the concert was less exciting. Dukas' "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" opened the concert, with a well-controlled if not particularly stirring performance. Mr. Slatkin slowed down the tempo for an excellent thick-as-molasses contrabassoon solo from James Rodgers. In the second half, three other Ravel pieces -- "Alborada del gracioso," "Pavane pour une infante defunte" and the PSO premiere of "Menuet antique" -- were well performed but for the most part not especially moving. Principal horn William Caballero showed off a golden tone during "Pavane."

This concert repeats at 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Tonight's 8 p.m. concert features a somewhat different program, without Mr. Camilo but with concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley and Ms. Williams as soloists. That concert also features a “Behind the Notes” presentation discussion on the music with Mr. Slatkin

Elizabeth Bloom: ebloom@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750.


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