We spend an inordinate amount of time trying to define greatness, and classical music is particularly obsessed with it. But so often it is a debate made away from the music in question -- in a coffee shop or a classroom, in an article or a book.
But what role does experience play? As of late I have come to define greatness in music as any composition or song that, when listening to it, seems the best work I have ever heard. When I am listening to a Beethoven Symphony, I can't imagine another that's "better." Same with Chopin's nocturnes and Wagner's operas, Schubert's lieder or Radiohead's albums.
Friday night, Brahms took that top billing in my mind, and on the stage of Heinz Hall with electric performances of his Piano Concerto No. 1 and Symphony No. 1 by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
Experience certainly resides in the mind of guest conductor Herbert Blomstedt. Here was a fascinating game of what could have been. In the period after Andre Previn left the PSO, Mr. Blomstedt was a serious candidate to succeed him. But he instead went to San Francisco, and soon Lorin Maazel took the reins. What a different orchestra this might have been, for better or for worse. Mr. Blomstedt is 83 now, and perhaps his beat is not as sharp as it once was. There were some rough entrances and cutoffs, but he shepherded the orchestra in the two works like a wise man who understands the bigger picture.
His gestures were restrained but full of meaning, and when he asked for more, it came. At one point in Symphony No. 1, he seemed to shove the sound horizontally from section to section. He got a charged timbre from the strings, but a glowing, appropriately Romantic aura from the orchestra as a whole.
There is no more stirring music to me than the epic opening of the First Symphony, and it arrived as such, setting the stage for what followed. Fluid solos by the woodwinds, a sweet rendering of a solo by guest concertmaster Tomo Keller marked the first two movements. In the finale, rustic exclamation by the horns and a resonating chorale by the trombones gave way to a rich reading of the famous finale theme.
I am happy to report that pianist Garrick Ohlsson is human. He missed a note in his brilliant performance of the First Piano Concerto, and it actually made me appreciate his amazing virtuosity all the more.
A frequent visitor here, the tall Mr. Ohlsson can dominate a piano in the way that makes it seem effortless. But he was pouring himself into the music in a visceral manner. Actually, closing one's eyes made that much more obvious. He transformed the thick texture of the solo part into a translucent window that let in warm light. He thundered up and down the keyboard in the first movement and created a bell-like tone in the second. His encore, the middle movement of Beethoven's "Pathetique" Sonata, was a fitting complement.
You just had to be there.
Program repeats at 8 tonight.