Best Classical Concert: Noah Bendix-Balgley

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Another year, another tough decision for this music critic. How to come up with only 10 concerts that were the most memorable in 2012. I couldn't fit in a fine recital by organist Paul Jacobs and some great concerts by the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble and Chatham Baroque. This marks one of the only times I have led the list off with someone other than the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra or the Pittsburgh Opera.

1. Noah Bendix-Balgley (Temple Emanuel, Jan. 29): There was electricity in the air of the Temple Emanuel in Mt. Lebanon as violinist Noah Bendix-Balgley stepped onto the stage. It was the first Pittsburgh recital of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's new concertmaster. He had been hired with much fanfare a year earlier and had impressed in his first half season as the orchestra's leader. But the Pittsburgh music community had yet to hear the full scope of his artistry.

Among the many packed into the large worship space was nearly the entire PSO -- Mr. Bendix-Balgley's colleagues wanted to hear this, too. And did he deliver. Presented by the Diskin Music Fund, he displayed a musical sensibility that seemed to channel violinists of old. In repertoire Romantic, modern and Jewish, his dark-hued tone and slight sliding to notes evoked violinists such as Fritz Kreisler, whose famed "Liebesleid" he played as an encore. With pianist Rodrigo Ojeda, Mr. Bendix-Balgley performed Stravinsky's "Suite Italienne," Brahms' Scherzo in C minor from the "F.A.E." Sonata, Joseph Achron "Hebrew Melody" and Franck's Violin Sonata in A major. He had arrived and we were glad to have him.

2. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Manfred Honeck, William Caballero (Heinz Hall, Sept. 21): In Manfred Honeck's hands, the war horse that is Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, "From the New World," moved in a fresh and jaunty gait. He envisioned the work through the "old world," viewing the symphony as a homesick love letter to Dvorak's homeland of Bohemia rather than a postcard from America. Mr. Honeck culled the Czech spirit from the work, just as he has done with Mahler -- the conductor's roots in Bohemia guiding his interpretation. Orbiting this splendid performance were two works: a brilliant performance by PSO principal horn player Caballero of Strauss' Horn Concerto No. 1 and star baritone Thomas Hampson's wonderful intoning of four orchestral songs by Strauss.

3. Jerusalem Quartet (Carnegie Music Hall, Oct. 24): The Jerusalem Quartet's debut on the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society series was breathtaking. Or jaw-dropping. Or maybe ear opening. In any case, it was brilliant. The members "displayed the discipline of an orchestra string section yet the nuances of a chamber choir" in a program of Mozart's "Prussian" Quartet, Shostakovich's Quartet No. 1 and Borodin's Quartet No. 2.

4. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Honeck, Rusinek (Heinz Hall, Dec. 1): Music lovers in Pittsburgh already know that PSO clarinetist Michael Rusinek is a rare talent. His solos within pieces and in concerto are vibrantly phrased with a lavish, supple timbre. For this concert, his instrument was rare, too. He played Mozart's famous Clarinet Concerto in A Major on the obscure instrument for which it was actually written: the obsolete basset clarinet, whose range is four notes below the modern clarinet. Mr. Honeck led the intriguing performance and Mr. Rusinek amazed, especially considering he had to learn the new keys setup of the basset clarinet. Mason Bates' "Mothership" and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 rounded out this exceptional concert.

5. Pittsburgh Opera, "The Abduction From the Seraglio" (Benedum Center, April 28): The Pittsburgh Opera and director James Robinson set Mozart's "The Abduction From the Seraglio" in the most fitting of environments. Even though the glory days of the Orient Express didn't exist when Mozart penned this comic opera, placing the production in this setting was an ingenious approach. The luxury of the famed train cars matched the lavish lifestyle of the Turkish harem and gave creative space to the absurdities of the action. The singers and actors responded in kind: bass Paolo Pecchioli as Osmin, Adam Fry as Pasha Selim, Lisette Oropesa as Konstanze, David Portillo as Belmonte, Ashley Emerson as Blonde and Joseph Gaines as Pedrillo. I called it one of "the most compelling and visually appealing productions the Pittsburgh Opera has ever staged."

6. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Honeck, Mahler's Sixth (Heinz Hall, June 15): In this concert, Mr. Honeck did something most conductors today shy away from: tinkering with a classic. In the PSO's performance of Gustav Mahler's Sixth Symphony, he went back to an early manuscript of the symphony that called for a wooden hammer to strike a large box five times, each just as the work reached what appeared to be a victorious climax. Mahler later removed three of these, deciding that five was overboard.

Mr. Honeck's restoration of all five strikes, delivered with force by percussionist Andrew Reamer, added even more weight and drama to the finale. Later in the week, he went with only two, another sign of a conductor always willing to go far to search for the essence of a work.

The concert opened with an odd concerto written by the conductor/composer Eugene Goossens: Concert Piece for Oboe, Two Harps and Orchestra. It was written for his family and it was another musical family that performed it: oboist James Gorton, his wife, Gretchen Van Hoesen, and his daughter, Heidi Van Hoesen Gorton, both harpists. They displayed uncommon cohesiveness and musicality even as the piece called for virtuosic and sometimes awkward passages -- and some funny props amid musical quotations.

7. Richard Egarr (Synod Hall, Feb. 4): The British harpsichordist came as a guest of the Renaissance & Baroque Society series and gave a memorable performance that put the harpsichord in the context in which it arose: in the quiet atmosphere of courtly life, mimicking the lute rather than presaging the piano. In music by Couperin, Froberger, Purcell and Blow, he improvised filigree and concocted phrasing like a pastry chef. Lightness of touch and creative expressivity abounded.

8. JACK Quartet (The Andy Warhol Museum, Feb. 25): This quartet showed not the future but the present of classical music -- not something we hear too often in Pittsburgh. Co-presented by the museum and the University of Pittsburgh's Music on the Edge series, JACK Quartet brought its passionate, poignant and ever punchy style of new music to bear on works by Pitt composer Amy Williams, Philip Glass, Michael Gordon's "Potassium" and Jason Eckardt.

9. Jewish Music Festival, David Krakauer (Temple Emanuel, May 20): Clarinetist David Krakauer opened the Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival with a sets alternately fiery and ruminative. He and top-notch local freelance musicians offered music from relatively unknown composers such as Alexander Krein to electric klezmer including a Krakhaur favorite, "Der Heyser Bulgar," and a sophisticated score by Osvaldo Golijov sung by soprano Lara Bruckmann and conducted David Stock.

10. American Wind Symphony (Point State Park, July 21): The pure spectacle of watching a classical music ensemble performing on a silver barge that looked like a spaceship would have been enough to have my head spinning. But the atmosphere around the American Wind Symphony Orchestra's return to Pittsburgh (after 15 years) on its traveling stage/barge, Point Counterpoint II, was intoxicating. Audience members who had come to Point State Park years ago to hear the ensemble dock for an annual series of concerts led by conductor Robert Boudreau flocked out. From an opening fanfare by Richard Strauss and onward to wind music from around the world, the music was satisfying, too.


Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod: or 412-263-1750. He blogs at First Published December 20, 2012 5:00 AM


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