The Pittsburgh Symphony: "Overture to Russian" and "Ludmilla"
The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra returned to the Mann Center in Philadelphia for the second year in a row, after not performing here since the mid-70s. Conductor Arild Remmreit led last year’s triumphal performance, which exhibited PSO’s many strengths, especially during "Beethoven’s 5th Symphony."
PSO Musical Director Manfred Honeck displayed other qualities at the July 24 concert and showcased his bombastic, interpretive conducting style. Honeck, decked out in a white tux jacket on a very sultry night, had enthusiastic, charm on the podium, did not address the audience and was all musical business.
PSO opened with Glinka’s "Overture to Russian" and "Ludmilla," with its sardonic clamor and clipped tempo, actually seemed too rushed out of the gate with hazy detailing, but certainly an affecting entrée act.
The marquee draw was cellist Johannes Moser playing Anonin Dvorak’s "Cello Concerto I in B minor." This piece displayed interpretive skill from the soloist and Honeck’s clean orchestral accents. Moser comes in almost stealthily, after the lengthy orchestral opening of the concert, with such muscled phrasing, flawlessly mastered on his Guaneri cello, built in 1694.
Playing from memory, he was not in his own zone, the connection with the orchestra was palpable and instructive to the piece. Moser was transfixing as he delivered the scarred string effects and in the musical serenity in Dvorak’s famous 3rd movement cello theme. His exchanges with first violinist Noah Bendix-Balgley, were thrillingly paced. Among the other outstanding solos in the overall stellar woodwinds was flutist Lorna McGhee.
Tchaikovsky’s "Symphony No. 5" is a signature piece for PSO, and it was apparent in the cohesive drama they essayed. Honeck leading without the score in front of him, kept this a forward moving drama. The dirge-like opening was not milked for its foreboding, and other affecting accents like the waltz interlude in the 3rd movement were played with straightforward élan. The orchestral ascension of the 2nd movement led to such clarion, lush textures in the French horn solo by William Caballero.
All of the orchestra’s counterpoint and inner chamber playing well articulated, especially the cellos and supporting strings. At several points in Tchaikovsky’s resolves, Honeck swept his arm across the air to illustrate the calm musicality that was so lushly conjured by these musicians.
In contrast, Honeck pressed the volume to max in the fortissimo, crescendo and march passages at the expense of depth of sound. The sound system at the Mann further mashed this, which led to instances of sonic overkill.
But Honeck’s showiness definitely did not bother this appreciative audience, who was clamoring for more, and the maestro gamely responded with two encores: the lush prelude to Act III from Bizet’s "Carmen," and the saber dance from Katchaturian’s "Masquerade Suite," which was a fine, bombastic exit.