Friday night's Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra program was a bit of a hodgepodge. It featured a work for strings, a suite from an opera, a piano concerto and a full-on symphony. Conducted by music director Manfred Honeck and featuring the Heinz Hall debut of Russian pianist Yulianna Avdeeva, the mixed program yielded mixed results, with the suite from Janacek's "Jenufa" and Dvorak's Symphony No. 8 serving as the highlights.
The evening started with Samuel Barber's famous "Adagio for Strings." Often used as the music at funerals and in movies, the heart-wrenching piece functions as one long inhale and exhale. The string sections conjured atmospheric sounds and the unity of a string quartet, which led to a haunting climax. Mr. Honeck's fast pace, however, did not let the work sufficiently breathe.
The rest of the orchestra chimed in during the "Jenufa" suite, which the PSO premiered on its recent European tour. It was an arrangement by Mr. Honeck and Czech composer Tomas Ille of the opera that deals with a love triangle gone awry in rural Moravia. The orchestra music from "Jenufa" stands well without singers -- the opera provides the requisite dance scenes, as well as big orchestral moments to boot -- and the arrangement was excellent. It offered a palette of textures, from lyrical to gutsy. English horn player Harold Smoliar gave sensuous and singing solos across dynamic ranges, and concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley delivered silky solos here and later in the Dvorak.
The first half ended with Ms. Avdeeva's performance of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21, the "Elvira Madigan" concerto included in that Swedish movie from 1967. Much like most of Mozart's works, this piece benefits from increased clarity. Ms. Avdeeva's playing, however, suffered from over-pedaling that muddied out individual phrases. This was particularly noticeable in the upbeat first movement. She fared better in the slow movement, although she brushed under the rug some of its more gorgeous moments by throwing away the low notes played with the right hand. The third movement was more precise. Ms. Avdeeva showed facility across fast passages, but her playing was sometimes harsh. The orchestra provided clear accompaniment. Her encore, a Chopin mazurka, was much better suited to her lush style.
The concert ended on a strong performance of Dvorak's Eighth Symphony. Like Janacek, Dvorak was interested in folk music from his native land, dropping Bohemian themes into this work. The orchestra transitioned well between the first movement's crazed contrasts, ranging from delicate woodwind solos to screeching violins right out of a well-scored horror film. From the ashes of the opening movement came a stirring second in which the strings shined. The dance-like third movement featured a fleet-footed solo from oboist Cynthia Koledo DeAlmeida, as well as an effective coda taken at a relaxed tempo. The rousing fourth movement featured plump, warm playing, particularly from the cellos. Flutist Lorna McGhee gave sparkling solos throughout.
Elizabeth Bloom: email@example.com, 412-263-1750 or on Twitter @BloomPG. First Published October 11, 2013 8:03 PM