Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra kicks off season with rousing concert

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"Rousing" is the word that came to mind Friday evening in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's first subscription concert of the new season in Heinz Hall. Rousing, and also joyful. Though the evening's music contained agitation, even sadness, at times, the performers under music director Manfred Honeck seemed to revel in the sheer joy of making music -- music that was extroverted, raucous, and full of vitality.

It was a night for this orchestra's excellent percussion and timpani to shine, with principal timpanist Edward Stephen meriting special mention for strength and endurance, but all the members contributing to the -- yes, rousing -- results.

Mr. Honeck began with a glance backward to Beethoven, the "Fidelio" Overture, then forward to a commissioned premiere of Pittsburgh native David Stock's Sixth Symphony, finally joining the Mendelssohn Choir on the second half in Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana. In "Fidelio," the orchestra seemed to be finding its way, with imprecise attacks and uncharacteristic uncertainty among the usually infallible Pittsburgh horns.

Once warmed up, the orchestra was superb. This is a year in which the Symphony will honor city-based composers, beginning with Mr. Stock, who has not composed a work called "Symphony" since 2002. His new work, which may be counted a success in every way, was all the more welcome, and the premiere was received with enthusiastic applause and standing ovations.

Justly so, as from the frenetic opening motive, then timpani competing with a lyrical theme in the strings, there was hardly a dull measure in the symphony's fast-moving 23-minute duration. The middle movement startled melodically, giving way to driving percussive interruptions. Jewish elements dominate the finale incorporating the familiar "Shema" and "Kadosh" prayers, and rhythms that stem from Eastern European dance.

"Carmina Burana" was, of course, what most people came to hear. Orff's 1936 setting of irreverent, often raunchy medieval poems, is a classic that's hard to characterize: part opera, part oratorio, part ballet. Rhythm is the principal element. Melodies are simplistic and singable, harmony is rudimentary, counterpoint all but nonexistent. The work appeals on the level of a primal scream, and with the enormous vocal and instrumental forces, is difficult to bring off without becoming empty or bombastic.

Conductor Honeck provided balance between steadiness and flexibility. The driving rhythms were there, but he left a little stretch room, especially for the vocal soloists but also in the orchestral dance interludes and introductions to choral segments. Instrumental color was an important asset. Again, the percussion section did itself proud, apart from an odd glitch at an exposed moment early on. The Mendelssohn Choir, over 100 strong, was honed by its director Betsy Burleigh to sing equally well in smaller groups. Only missing was the children's chorus called for in some of the later movements. Mature soprano voices don't produce the requisite sonority.

While orchestra and choir comported themselves in traditional concert fashion, the three vocal soloists brought operatic dramatization into play. Baritone Hugh Russell had the most to sing. His vocal technique was fuzzy and sometimes unfocused, but he had the stamina to sustain passages that sit high in the baritone range, and the histrionic skills to simulate the sexual interplay with soprano Lisette Oropesa. She, for her part used her light, clear sound effectively, with no signs of strain up to high D in the climactic passage. A unique movement involves a tenor portraying a swan being roasted on a spit. Mr. Honeck gave the segment to Pittsburgh's wonderful countertenor Andrey Nemzer, who not only vocalized impossibly high vocal lines with unprecedented ease, but tore at the heartstrings for the painful plight of the captured bird.

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