Interwoven into every day of our lives is a series of scripts: mini plays in which we have a well-defined role. When a waiter welcomes us to a restaurant, we know we will first be asked about what drink we'd like, and we should soon be ready to announce our order. No one tells us this when we enter, but it is played out. More than habits, these are interactions that we can reasonably predict, and that's largely good.
There are plenty of scripts at any Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concert in Heinz Hall, such as the holding of applause during a work. But the performances themselves should never follow one. The notes of the score have plenty of prescriptions, but we should never predict how we will be moved. It's the job of a conductor and musicians to bring the works alive every time, sometimes even in ways the composer never imagined.
Friday night, that failed to happen in the PSO debuts of British conductor Michael Francis and German violinist Christian Tetzlaff. To be sure, Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in G minor cloaked the audience in its melancholic mystery. But it was routine under Mr. Francis. It was graceful and quiet; he seemed to be going for a soundscape more akin to a string quartet than an orchestra. Yet this only made the play more obvious. The music moved by, whereas it should have moved me.
Mr. Tetzlaff is a big name in classical music. A very big name. It was wonderful finally to have him on stage. Tradition -- the grandest script of all -- puts soloists in the same spot for every concerto, to the left of the conductor's podium. But it doesn't tell a violinist how to play. You might think by now we would know exactly how a war horse such as Dvorak's Violin Concerto should sound, but interpretation by the performer is the joy of classical music. No composer can notate everything and no true musician would want to. It's a matter of taste, but to me, the Hamburg-born soloist played it safe. His ultra-sweet tone put a muzzle on the energy of this vibrant work. It was a predictable performance by someone who has plenty of artistic force within him.
All the proof needed that the Dvorak had more fire than we heard came in the second half of the concert with works by two other Czech composers. Smetana's "Sarka," from "Ma Vlast," could be a mini Wagner opera. The tone poem depicts an ancient tale of a noblewoman who rebels against male rule and triumphs in bloody fashion. Potent stuff, although the best part was Michael Rusinek's portraying of her ruse to seduce a prince.
The night concluded with Janacek's "Taras Bulba," a 20th-century work by the Czech nationalist about the trials of a Cossack leader. Although the work opened with sonorous solos by English horn player Harold Smoliar and oboist Scott Bell, the highlight was the heavy metal, so to speak, of the horns and brass in the final movement.
These last pieces were not just more energetic, but because they are not programmed often by the PSO, the audience had no scripts at the ready. They were fresh and exciting. But credit has to be given to the guest conductor for taking some artistic risks, such as putting some of the solo parts out in relief, that brought out their inner might and drama.