Concert review: Twisting, troubling music at Pittsburgh Symphony's 'Slatkin, Ax and Mozart'

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If there were ever a concert I wish I could find out what each audience member thought, it would be Friday night's affair at Heinz Hall.

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and its principal guest conductor Leonard Slatkin offered three compositions that mix positive and negative with the mind-boggling nature of a Mobius strip. Sergei Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5 of 1944 is ominous and optimistic at the same time, from its angular themes to its lurking lower-ranged utterances.

Pittsburgh Symphony's 'Slatkin, Ax and Mozart'

Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown.

When: 8 tonight and 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: $20-$93; or 412-392-4900.

Contemporary -- that is to say, living, since many still view Prokofiev as contemporary music -- composer Mason Bates' "The B-Sides" is a suite of five distinct movements that match the disruptive technology of electronica with music that seemed to disrupt reality. Then came Amadeus Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25, performed by guest pianist Emanuel Ax, its polish occasionally wearing off to reveal distress underneath.

But there is no denying that the surface of the music, the musical language of each, was startlingly different and I'd love to hear who liked what.

Mr. Bates is the PSO's composer-of-the-year and has been such a breath of fresh air, not just because he is one of the few composers left who performs his works with an orchestra.

By fearlessly bringing electronic sounds and the electronica dance style into the orchestra realm, by live drum pad activation of pre-recorded sounds, he connects music to culture in a way no different than Brahms or Mahler. But he sculpts popular culture more than simply incorporating it. There was visual absurdity in brooms sweeping against sheet metal in "Broom of the System." Our short attention span was parodied in the quickly dissolving themes of "Aerosol Melody." And he manufactured a voyeur-like view of a rave in "Warehouse Medicine," in which that familiar, pounding techno dance beat comes in and out of audible range.

But his artful re-interpretation of the 1965 Gemini IV space walk that re-orders the audio of astronaut Ed White "seduced by the vastness and mystery of space" was a most profound twisting of a reality and history.

How wonderfully this was echoed in the Prokofiev. It has its own incessant beat in the famous second movement and many shifts of mood and mode in nearly every phrase and section. Mr. Slatkin, more of a facilitator in the Bates work was in full control in the Soviet's work, pushing and pulling the work, but always with an ear for climax.

As for Mr. Ax, his customary pretty playing that dances on the top of the notes gave way to more probing phrasing in the second and the third movements. So different to the ear, yet -- and hopefully others felt this, too -- so wonderfully unsettling in its underlying nature.

Correction, posted March 25, 2013: In an earlier version of this story, the number in the title of Amadeus Mozart's Piano Concerto was incorrect.


Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod: or 412-263-1750. He blogs at Twitter: @Druckenbrod


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