Concert review: Springtime in Pittsburgh is partly sunny

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There is no better way to celebrate spring than with good old classical music. It helps, of course, if that music is Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” suite and Gershwin’s “An American in Paris.” It’s as if the composers colluded to create the ultimate spring-themed concert in Pittsburgh, the Paris of Appalachia.

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra played those two works in the second half of an entirely American program, conducted by Kansas City Symphony music director Michael Stern. The musical ingredients were as American as apple pie, but the recipe yielded a mixed execution.

The program opened with Charles Tomlinson Griffes’ “The Pleasure-Dome of Kubla Kahn,” inspired by the Coleridge poem “Kubla Kahn.” Mr. Stern cultivated an almost spooky rather than majestic quality, while exotic solos from the English horn, oboe, flute and violin provided contrast. But the conductor really let the ensemble rip, and the result was a fast and loud performance to the point of being harsh.

Bernstein’s “Fancy Free” ballet followed, and it was too fancy and not free enough. Mr. Stern’s interpretation did not comfortably settle on either of the piece’s dual identities: classical and American vernacular music. That issue seemed to align with certain instruments, with the more traditionally jazzy ones (drum set and piano, particularly at the end of the piece) letting their hair down more than their strictly classical brethren. Mr. Stern brought out too-loud playing that was an inadequate replacement for that breeziness, and his physical, controlled conducting made for an uneven performance. Billie Holiday’s “Big Stuff” was the recorded prologue.

The second half of the concert was more successful. It opened with another ballet, this time the suite from “Appalachian Spring,” which is based in rural Pennsylvania. Mr. Stern thinned out the heavy ensemble playing of the first half with a wistful, pastoral interpretation. Intimate, gorgeous ensemble playing in the slow section leading to the Shaker theme set the stage for warm violas and a grandiose (if a touch fast) final variation on “Simple Gifts.”

The last piece, Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” struck a better balance than the Bernstein between the classical and jazz-infused aspects of the music. The performance was clean while allowing the boisterous moments to bloom fully, whether it was the extroverted taxi horns or unapologetic blues. In the beginning of that bluesy section, well-placed hairpins in the percussion perfectly set up the trumpet solo, and the ending was resplendent.

Concert repeats 8 tonight, 2:30 p.m. Sunday.


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

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