Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra celebrates Strauss

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Richard Strauss’ 150th birthday was Wednesday. To celebrate, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra performed an all-Strauss program at Heinz Hall Friday night in its final concert of the 2013-14 classical season. The concert showed there are really multiple Richard Strausses — his musical range was not to be limited, least of all by himself.

Conducted by music director Manfred Honeck, it included two orchestral suites from Strauss operas (“Der Rosenkavalier” and, in a world-premiere arrangement, “Elektra”) and the tone poem “Don Juan.”

The PSO had recorded “Don Juan” for its CD of Strauss tone poems, released last year. This interpretation didn’t differ radically, but hearing it live added to the listening experience. The overwhelming wall of sound this orchestra is capable of is more striking in the live setting, and the performance was almost as tight. The opening shot energy into the performance, with contrasting themes releasing the tension like a sigh. Cynthia Koledo DeAlmeida was impressive here (and in later pieces) with a poignant oboe solo. Mr. Honeck’s tempos were thoughtfully chosen, although the horns’ theme was too slow and deflated that moment, at least the first time around.

The orchestra brought a bit of “Don Juan” to “Der Rosenkavalier” with a boisterous beginning section to the suite from that opera. It could have used a few more relaxed tempos early on, but beautiful, delicate waltzes followed. Mr. Honeck brought out myriad colors in the varied takes on the dance. Gorgeous, lyrical middle sections set up the orchestra for the return of a dramatic waltz suspended on Mr. Honeck’s baton that in turn led to a dazzling ending.

The “Elektra” Symphonic Rhapsody was conceived by Mr. Honeck and orchestrated by composer Tomas Ille — no small task, given Strauss’ magnificent orchestration and huge orchestral writing for the opera. “Elektra” provided a remarkable contrast with “Rosenkavalier,” with the former’s dark character juxtaposing with the schmaltziness of the latter. With a full orchestral complement, the arrangement is heavy, and its dissonance drew me in. Dynamics throughout the spectrum — from thunderous tutti moments, to low brass and horns droning under cellos, to whispering violins — created a haunting, almost frightening character that contrasted with moments of beauty. Some shorter passages did not grab my ears with similar firmness.

The concert marked another milestone: the upcoming retirements of seven PSO musicians who together have been with the orchestra for 261 years. Congratulations to that group.

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

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