You wouldn't be too off base if you think that Manfred Honeck views music through a Gustav Mahler lens. The music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra does connect with Mahler's music and does like to reference him, as he did in notes about the concert Friday night at Heinz Hall. And about his thoughts on a Shostakovich Symphony no less -- the famous and complex Fifth.
But this is actually a compelling way to view the Soviet composer's works from his Fourth Symphony on. Shostakovich became enthralled with Mahler's ability to juxtapose different musical elements. In the Fifth -- and this still remains controversial -- he seems also to have called upon Mahler's layering of meaning. The claim is that while publicly kowtowing to Stalin with militaristic and celebratory strains, Shostakovich actually mocked the despot and lamented the people who died at his command.
Mr. Honeck's sensitivity for Mahler enlived the Shostakovich, especially the middle movements. The stinging opening and boisterous parts of the first movement at times found the PSO not entirely together, but the second theme was poignant. The harps, led by Gretchen Van Hoesen, were brilliant throughout, connecting so well with solo parts in the woodwinds and strings despite being tucked away on the side of the stage, many yards away. A touching duet between principal horn player William Caballero and principal flutist Lorna McGhee was a highlight.
Mr. Honeck seemed to channel both composers in his deft handling of the second movement's abrupt switches between a jaunty folk dance and a soldiers' march. But it was the third -- in which Shostakovich gave voice to his departed friends with various solo instruments -- that the conductor's skill led to music both poignant and profound. Plaintive solos hung delicately above sobbing strings, with the cellos and then the harps offering thoughts. Mr. Honeck then pushed the PSO into a furious finale, emphasizing the brutal banality of the end's repetitive bow strokes with appropriate weight.
The first half had its own banality. Yuja Wang, a pianist whose performances heretofore I have never disliked, banged her way through Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1. Her playing was loud, often harsh and generally unconnected with the orchestra. I am hoping she just had an off night, and there were some redeeming moments.
But in a year that has seen the death of Van Cliburn, this was not the reading that did justice to the grandeur and artistry of this concerto.
I have never wanted my reviews to be about me, other than to let readers know that my writing is my opinion and not what you "should" think (that includes Ms. Wang whom many in the audience clearly liked). But this is my last review of the PSO as an employee of the Post-Gazette. I will pen a few more in the fall as a freelancer, but of my own accord I am moving on to other opportunities.
The past 12 years have been the best of my life, and it's been an honor to cover the PSO and other music groups in this vibrant arts scene. I am indebted to the Post-Gazette for giving me the opportunity, backing me up in a few scuffles and committing to classical music coverage in a time when that is waning nationwide. I hope I have helped to promote the scene as well as hold it to the high standard it deserves.
Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1750.