Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra brings grandeur and grandstanding to Heinz Hall

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The classical repertoire abounds with fantastic piano concertos, but only a few make the instrument truly sound grand.

Is it any wonder, then, that Edvard Grieg's Piano Concerto in A Minor remains the most famous? Heard at Heinz Hall Friday night, the Romantic work brought out the best of the Steinway on stage, with grandeur meeting grandeur from the famed opening cascade of notes to the jaunty folk dance at the end.

The soloist was Valentina Lisitsa, a Ukrainian-born concert pianist who has become more well-known since we last heard her in Pittsburgh because of some viral video presence on YouTube. But her navigating of the extremes of dynamics was something that would need HD to capture the nuances. She was able to follow potent statements with soft playing that might be best described as the sotto voce of an opera singer.

With conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier, she connected well with the orchestra, playing off the musicians at times, although principal horn player William Caballero's entrance in the second movement, with a phrase that started huge and brassy before falling to remarkable softness, was equally compelling. After the finale -- indeed a grand one -- the audience called Ms. Lisitsa for two encores, something rare with the PSO (she offered Liszt's "La Campanella" and Chopin's Nocturne Op. 9, No. 2).

The concert opened with a fantastic new work by Osvaldo Golijov, a major contemporary composer. His "Sidereus" was written to honor Henry Fogel, a longtime executive and leader in the orchestra industry, but its sweeping strains and melancholic tune might long outlive that memory.

The second half of the concert was briefly put on the ropes by Mr. Tortelier's talking about himself and trying to describe the last pieces. Maurice Ravel's "Rapsodie Espagnole" did not fare well after the conductor finally put down the microphone. It was garish and unconnected, lacking the subtlety that binds its many depictions of the Spanish peninsula.

But he made up for it with a vivacious and impassioned leading of Edward Elgar's "In the South, 'Alassio.' " This tone poem of sorts is not heard nearly enough. With stirring strings and a darkness beneath the surface it describes far more than Italy. It is a capturing of an entire world imagined and brought to life by the British composer. A fine solo by violist Randolph Kelly was a highlight, but really the entire orchestra seemed to enjoy the work, performing with uncommon vigor.

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


Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod: adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750. He blogs at www.post-gazette.com/classicalmusings. @druckenbrod.


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