Music review: Pianist fine-tunes a difficult Rachmaninoff

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Opinions will differ, but no one can dispute that the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's concert Friday night was OK in the end.

That would be Olga Kern, mind you.

The Russian pianist debuted at Heinz Hall in 2010 in one of those concerts that you figure garnered her a return invitation before the first movement ended. This appearance was akin to a sequel as much as a return. The program then was Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 1. Friday it was the composer's Third. Rach Three, as it is sometimes called, might as well be a sequel to One and Two. Yes all three concerti are different, but the artistic gist is not, and if you are a fan of the piano, that's a good thing.

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

Leonard Slatkin, conductor, Olga Kern, piano,conductor

When: 8 p.m.Sat. and 2:30 p.m. Sun.

Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown.

Tickets: Start at $20;; 412-392-4900.

I am of the opinion that Rachmaninoff was the most talented pianist who ever lived. Not that I think about it much, but the combination of his physical stature, technique and artistry were unparalleled. We have his recordings of these works. End of story, right? What else can a pianist add? Plenty, if, as Ms. Kern so excels, you do so by subtracting.

Despite the fact that this work is one of the most difficult solo parts in all of classical music, many pianists still pound the ivory off the keys (thankfully little of that around now). Not her. When Rachmaninoff embeds a melody in a wash of fingerwork, Ms. Kern had the rest stand down; when he brought out the big guns that are the double octave artillery, she let the piano resonate instead of knocking it unconscious. It was almost as if she carried the simplicity of the opening theme throughout the entire work, despite its exponentially increasing difficulty. In the massive cadenza of the first movement, many pianists try to show they never needed the orchestra in the first place. For Ms. Kern it was a place of reflection on the substance of the work. So, too, were the melancholic strains of the second and even the flashes of the finale. The result was, well, better than OK, if that is possible.

Conductor Leonard Slatkin kept the PSO in sync with Ms. Kern, but he was much more enthused in the first half of the concert. The main dish was William Schuman's Symphony No. 3, which Mr. Slatkin oddly admonished no one in particular that it is a shame that we don't remember and perform Schuman's music much these days. But an orchestra is not a history textbook: There is no reason to perform music just because it played a role in American life. Schuman won major awards and once ran Lincoln Center, but Symphony No. 3 is a disjointed and artistically barren piece, in which each section of the orchestra seems to play its own meandering composition.

Well, that's simply my opinion based on my tastes, but the point is that music doesn't have to be judged as "great" if it is new because being part of our world is enough. Greatness is to be judged by later generations through their programming, and if Schuman has fallen off, there's your answer.

Case in point was the work that opened the concert. Scott Everly's "Arlington Sons" is a re-enactment, if you will, of a trip that a father and son make to see the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. Art reflects reality here as the work was commissioned and sung by bass-baritone David Pittsinger and his son Richard, a boy soprano. Mr. Pittsinger's father once guarded the Tomb, and this work was an homage to him and to all servicemen and women.

The work was a marvelous mixture of the solemnity of the moment and the vivaciousness of youth, with the father and son eventually meeting halfway and arriving at the meaning of human spirit of the ceremony. Flowing melody and believable dialogue abounded.

Here is a piece destined for many official performances. Pittsinger junior and senior sang with strength and vibrancy, doing their names justice, if only for a night.

Program repeats at 8 tonight and 2:30 p.m. Sunday.


Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at or 412-263-1750. He blogs at


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