French conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier led the PSO on Friday night.
By Elizabeth Bloom / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Perhaps conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier was taking the music a bit too literally.
Mr. Tortelier doesn’t exactly have the most conventional baton technique, and the music he was conducting on Friday night seemed to serve as inspiration for his own demonstrative gestures.
Life imitated art in Mr. Tortelier and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Stravinsky’s “Petrushka” (the 1947 revision) at Heinz Hall. The ballet follows the anthropomorphic activities of three puppets, and the French conductor held his arms near his head, like a puppeteer. He also swung them wildly in opposite directions, twisted his body for dramatic effect, jumped up and down, waved his hands like a magician, offered a quasi-pirouette and gave a few karate chops for good measure.
Under many circumstances, such physical expressions can seem overdone, but in the case of a work like “Petrushka,” which exists in a sort of Bizarro World, his lopsided movements conveyed what the piece demanded. Most important, the orchestra responded to his unique physicality. In the third tableau, Mr. Tortelier, the PSO’s former principal guest conductor, sliced his arms up and down, prompting a cutting clarinet lick. At one point, he seemed to lift a lid, releasing flourishes from the trombone section.
Such flailing can be a distraction, yet Mr. Tortelier offered a rather clear-eyed interpretation of this music: an idiosyncratic conductor leading an idiosyncratic piece. He successfully steered the myriad sound clusters of the carnival-like opening tableau, and he brought a strong pulse to the work’s rhythmic challenges.
The ballet-themed concert also offered a rare opportunity to hear music from Jacques Offenbach’s “Gaite Parisienne,” which the PSO last performed in 1982. That score, arranged by Manuel Rosenthal, is culled from selections from Offenbach’s operettas.
Offenbach’s music is like the French ancestor to Gilbert and Sullivan. But while it is light-hearted in nature, it can also be quite beautiful. The buoyant strings, effervescent percussion and plucky harp of the Barcarole were like bubbles floating through a champagne flute, gently popped by the pulsating woodwinds. Mr. Tortelier turned around on a couple of occasions to ask audience members if they wanted another selection. They welcomed the familiar music of the familiar can-can — i.e., “Infernal Galop” from Offenbach’s “Orphee aux enfers” — that finished the PSO’s suite.
Ravel’s “Bolero” was the real crowd pleaser, as it always is. Mr. Tortelier took the work at a quick pace, and while individuality is not really the point of the work, he drew out plenty of flair from individual players. Still, “Bolero” can be as unforgiving as Mozart — any stray note is noticeable — and to me, the other works were the highlights of the evening.
Concert repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
Elizabeth Bloom: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1750 and Twitter: @BloomPG.
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