Going into the opening concert of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's season I had on my mind how stunning it was that the orchestra had never performed three works by one of the most revered of composers: Richard Strauss. I walked out of Heinz Hall Friday night thinking the PSO doesn't perform Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 -- a war horse if there ever was one -- nearly enough.
Or maybe it was that I felt as if I had never heard the magnificent symphony subtitled "From the New World" before. In the hands of music director Manfred Honeck it was envisioned through, well, the old world.
The funny thing about this work is that, although Dvorak penned it in America in 1893 and incorporated musical themes he felt were quintessentially American, he was really thinking of his homeland of Bohemia, that area now a part of the Czech Republic. Its latter movements abound with musical references to Czech culture.
And the curious thing about the performance is that Mr. Honeck was able to cull that out of the work, just as he has done with Mahler. For all the talk of his Viennese background, Honeck's family has roots in Bohemia (several generations before he was born). Judging from a thrilling interpretation that unfettered the work and allowed it to burst off the stage, there's plenty of Czech blood still in the conductor.
Mr. Honeck tapped into the past by gloriously emphasizing its country dance, or landler, quality of the third movement. Trilling woodwinds and skipping strings seemed to scream homesickness. Yet, the greater impact was that Mr. Honeck seemed freed by his comfort with the cultural context to push it.
Where most conductors treat the work like a museum piece, he let it sing and even howl. The strokes of the end of the first movement were so ferocious that the conductor couldn't help but turn to the audience with acknowledgement of the power. The closing theme of this movement was crafted sublimely by Honeck, with the strings and flutes in turn seeming to pause nostalgically amid the pulsating music.
The second movement gave us reason again to appreciate English horn player Harold Smoliar in his vibrantly toned offering of the famous slow melody later known as "Goin' Home." The music that comes between the theme's statements was cast in urbane timbre in both woodwinds and strings. And in the theme's reprise, Mr. Honeck emphasized the fragility of the music and Dvorak's psyche.
It would be the proper thing to gush about star baritone Thomas Hampson's performance of four orchestral songs by Strauss, including the PSO premiere of "Notturno" and "Nachtlichter Gang" along with "Hymnus" and "Pilgers Morgenlied." But you knew this artistic titan and his mahogany tone would be enrapturing (if the stuffy music wasn't), and he was. So I instead will wax lyrical about PSO principal horn player William Caballero.
Even in an orchestra full of top-notch players, Mr. Caballero stands out. He is simply able to do things with the horn that shouldn't be possible. In the PSO premiere of the Strauss Horn Concerto No. 1 (written in 1888!), he flew through quick runs, punched out glorious accents and played quietly in registers that shouldn't be able to allow that. But it is his artistry that most impressed. In sync with Mr. Honeck, Mr. Caballero put a stamp on the piece that read like a fractal: stunning on a large scale and yet full of beautiful detail.
Concert repeats at 8 tonight and 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
Queen Latifah has canceled her Oct. 25-26 concerts at Heinz Hall with the PSO because of a scheduling conflict.
Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1750.