PSO dazzles in stadium's opening gala

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Editor's note: This is one in 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.

KAOHSUING, Taiwan -- Even when playing in an outdoor stadium topped with solar panels that produce 1.14 million kilowatts annually, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra can be the prime source of power.

That was the case in one of the most spectacular concerts the orchestra has ever performed in its venerable history. It was certainly not the most artistic; the orchestra was heavily miked and the sound was often narrow and tinny with echoes. But it was certainly among the most dazzling as the PSO performed a gala concert to inaugurate the Kaohsuing Main Stadium only a few months before the city hosts the 2009 World Games in July.

The striking lattice-work structure was filled with about 40,000 Taiwanese who were polite at first, but then exploded into waves of cheers and applause after music director Manfred Honeck, the PSO, the Vienna State Opera Chorus, choirs from Taiwan and operatic soloists ended the night with the final movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, "Choral."

While it was not the largest crowd the PSO has played before, it was three times more than Honeck had ever conducted. Big occasions are par for the course for the PSO, which has performed recently in Patras, Greece, in celebration of its role as a European Capital of Culture, and at the Vatican, for the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's installation.

This concert is hugely significant for Taiwan. After the success of the Beijing Olympics last year, here is a chance for the smaller Republic of China to showcase its own gorgeous stadium and international sports event in the World Games. There was even some minor controversy in the national press about why the PSO was chosen over a local orchestra. Scores of TV stations lined up behind the stadium and the country's president, Ma Ying-jeou, arrived at the last minute to his seat to formal applause (and not a hint of the protests he has been facing over his perceived warming up to Mainland China).

The green architecture of the stadium, lined with 8,844 solar panels that power it and the neighborhood, is cutting-edge hot. So was the stage -- far warmer in the lights than the 80-degree surrounding temperature combined with more than 90 percent humidity. The musicians labored through the concert in conditions many said were as steamy as they had ever played in.

"Never in my life did I have the pleasure to play a concert so overbearingly oppressive in terms of the heat and humidity," said cellist Irvin Kauffman, who has played in orchestras since 1954. "Both my shirts were soaked."

It was the audience that was showered in fireworks during Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" and at the end of the concert. While the percussionists tapped a mike on stage to add some bass to the "cannons," PSO resident conductor Lawrence Loh was in charge of cuing the 40 mortar shots that fired with each cannon shot. To compensate, he had to hit a button "about a 16th-note early," he said. Not easy, but he said afterward, "That was one of the most amazing things I have ever done."

The patchy nature of the audio set-up made for an uneven balance, but in "1812" those gloriously loud moments when the brass takes over came across clearly, even if the audience mostly applauded the fireworks. The PSO also performed Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, which perhaps was too much for the occasion.

Inauguration or not, the point was also to show what the PSO can do, and one last time Honeck brought his dramatic interpretation to the work. Not even a pair of large bats feasting on the bugs could deter the Pittsburghers from delivering the goods one more time. The woodwinds were not loud enough where I sat near the stage on the stadium floor, but the sound was meant to carry to the stands well behind us.

The piece that finally won the audience only needed one movement: the chorale finale of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9. Joined by choirs from Taiwan, the Vienna State Opera Chorus sang with excellent presence. And when American bass-baritone Gregg Baker stood up to vigorously intone "Freunde" (friends), you could hear a gasp in the crowd. He received a monstrous cheer during his curtain call. The other soloists -- Colombian tenor Cesar Gutierrez, German soprano Susanne Bernhard, and Taiwanese mezzo-soprano Jo-pei Weng -- did an excellent job of articulating phrases so that they carried with clarity through the huge space.

As the final measures of Beethoven's Ninth cascaded into the audience and fireworks began to fill the sky behind the stage, the stadium had passed its first test.

Let the games begin!

Classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at . He is now blogging about China at Classical Musings . First Published May 21, 2009 4:00 AM


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