In the now several years since conductor Gianandrea Noseda has had an official presence with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, he has offered music both from his homeland of Italy and of other nations, such as Russia. I feel that audiences at Heinz Hall, which saw him again Friday night, have gotten a good sense of his musicality.
But it wasn't until this concert that I felt he fully opened himself up. It came in the performance of a work, "La Notte di Platon (Plato's Night)," by Victor de Sabata. De Sabata was one of the conductors who came to the aid of the PSO after Fritz Reiner departed for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1948. To us, it is more of a footnote in the illustrious group of music directors of the PSO.
But Mr. Noseda gave a passionate account of the conductor whom he said was "like God" in Italy, although quick to amend that by adding Toscanini to the Italian firmament. Suddenly, the awkward title he holds at the PSO, the Victor de Sabata Conductor Chair, gained grand meaning. The introduction of a work by the conductor who was known at the time as a competent composer was a matter of deep respect and pride on the part of Mr. Noseda. The result to my ears was a work that deserves a place in the canon, perhaps more so than the work, Richard Strauss' "Aus Italien," that ended the night.
The work opened with a most treacherous orchestration, a theme played together by oboe, viola and trumpet. This strident theme, more or less cohesive, led to a warm and evocative theme. The plot is the last hurrah of Plato before he announces he would reject the hedonistic life to follow Socrates. De Sabata captured this colorfully as the partygoers Plato has invited leave rudely just before the break of dawn -- symbolic of the philosopher's new path. Mr. Noseda smoothly guided the orchestra through this plot and crafted the final calm and meditative music into a moment of transcendence. Now I know why he accepted the title.
In the aftermath of such an authentic utterance, Strauss' "Aus Italien" came across as superficial. It is not anywhere close to the level of his later tone poems. Its attempts to portray the ambience of the Italian countryside, with its Roman ruins and picturesque rivers, fall flat to me. The exclamation point comes in the final movement in which the German composer on vacation there thought he was incorporating a folk song. The tune he brought into the texture was actually the iconic "Funiculi-Funicula" -- what we call inclines -- by Luigi Denza.
But that doesn't mean the PSO didn't impress. This is a Austro-Germanic orchestra if there ever was one, and the tone and timbre, phrasing and solos were superb, especially the woodwinds.
In the midst of these Italian utterances was Ravel's Piano Concerto for Left Hand, a work probably more famous than good (the solo part is wonderful, but I have always bristled at the strident tutti).
I admire pianist Benjamin Hochman's decision to tour the piece. He unfurled the music so gently, lending a grace to it I had not heard before. But after hearing him in two Mozart concerti in his last visits, I was pining for a work that fit his talents better.
The program repeats tonight at 8 and Sunday at 2:30 p.m