After slow start, PSO recovers with Mahler

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This is the second of a series of reviews and reports by classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod, who is on tour with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in China and Taiwan.

BEIJING -- Negotiation is so central to Chinese life, one almost begins to think that is what the yin and yang are really doing.

Haggling over what you buy is just the most obvious form, but the concept is culturally ingrained. Last night, in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's second and final concert at the National Centre for the Performing Arts here, the audience and musicians almost seemed to be going back and forth themselves, searching for agreement on the performance by an orchestra that is essentially new to them (the PSO last played in Beijing 22 years ago).

A lackluster performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5, "Emperor," had them bidding low, but a tremendous interpretation of Mahler's Symphony No. 1 ended bartering on a high note.

Speaking of negotiations, it is change in these that led the originally scheduled pianist, veteran Garrick Ohlsson, to give way to Orion Weiss. The young protege of Emanuel Ax was impressive and assured in a performance in Heinz Hall this season, but here he was tentative and nervous. His phrasing was flat and he did not alter the color of the piano much, especially in quieter thematic episodes. Nor did he have much energy and edge to his playing when it was called for.

It may be in part because the piano tendered was a Bosendorfer and not the typical Steinway. (I love the sound of the former, but many pianists swear by Steinway.) But that is no excuse for a performance with such little elan or inner musicality. Weiss' future is bright, but this was the last "Emperor" I want to hear by him for a while.

Music director Manfred Honeck certainly asked for and received some elegant playing in the strings, especially in the opening of the second movement, but overall it was not a compelling offering.

Mahler, however, sent the bidding through the roof. There were some ensemble problems in the introduction, brought on by the hall's brightness. But by the time Honeck and the PSO reached his brilliant take on the symphony proper, and its tale of a confident hero who falls in love, they were cohesive and convincing.

Throughout the work, the currency here was sections such as the whooping horns, clarion trumpets and elegant cellos, plus the tremendous talents of solo players such as bassist Jeffrey Turner, clarinetist Michael Rusinek, horn player William Caballero, trumpeter George Vosburgh, oboist Cynthia DeAlmeida, bassoonist Nancy Goeres and others.

The overall interpretation, as in Heinz Hall earlier this season, was Honeck's tradition-challenging rustic and naturalistic reading that brings this piece alive (and I think close to Mahler's score). The Chinese certainly appeared to appreciate its vigor and let loose with a loud whoop of their own at the end. The patrons, which I am told are comprised of more Chinese tourists than regular Beijing subscribers, clapped in rhythm with the encore of Brahms' "Hungarian Dance No. 5."

Consider them sold on the PSO.

Classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at . He is now blogging about China at Classical Musings at


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