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‘Fifteen & Firebird’ – The PSO Season Finale

Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra End Season on a Remarkably High Note

By GEORGE B. PAROUS

The most important detail of the concert first: last night’s program will have two repetitions. You can hear it this evening, June 15, at 7:30 pm, or tomorrow afternoon, June 16, at 2:30 pm. You can purchase tickets at the box-office or online at the PSO website, but do one or the other if you don’t want to miss this feast for the ears. The eyes, too, for when the orchestra fills the stage of Heinz Hall, a sea of black and white, they are indeed a sight to behold.

First up was a moving acknowledgment of individual members of the orchestra, be it their birthdays last evening, or this season marking their retirements. The latter was a poignant moment, and remarkable in that the retiring instrumentalists have been with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra from twenty to forty years. Then the lights went down and Maestro Manfred Honek made his appearance accompanied by the usual reverberating ovation.

First on the program was Michael Daugherty’s fascinating Fifteen: Symphonic Fantasy on the Art of Andy Warhol, rather a grand work combining the old and new in five movements. The music is lively, vivid, and though of the very modern style, it is classically fit to be on a program with Beethoven and Stravinsky. There are passages throughout that draw attention to each section of the orchestra – even the chimes get a workout. Each movement takes a piece of Warhol’s creations (such as his portrait of Elizabeth Taylor) and turns it into a symphonic movement named “Liz’s Lament.” On a first hearing, my attention was too focused on the exciting music to figure out how all of what was happening had anything to do with Andy Warhol, but keener imaginations gave the conductor and orchestra a rousing ovation. Mr. Daugherty was on hand to hear it all, and he must have been touched very deeply.

The second part of the first half of the program brought Ludwig van Beethoven’s magnificent Concerto No. 4 for Piano and Orchestra in G major, Opus 58. His first three concertos have obvious spots of Mozart’s influence, but the fourth is unmistakably Beethoven in his prime.  “Well before Beethoven,” Jan Swafford, the composer and writer has stated, “a prime issue of concertos had been the relationship of soloist and orchestra: are they cooperating or competing? The Fourth Concerto lifts that drama to an unprecedented intensity… This is a work innovative and bold, with a singular integration of introspection and bravura.”

There’s no question that in last evening’s performance, cooperation rolled from the stage. Yefim Bronfman, the guest pianist, created a sensation and played what may be the best piano performance I’ve seen and heard to date. The orchestra played in its usual precise and passionate style, and made the “drama” as exciting as it could possibly be. There was the usual clamor for an encore, and after two, maybe three recalls, Maestro Honeck convinced Mr. Bronfman that there was no point in trying to escape. He sat back down and played in the same generously thrilling style as he had in the concerto.

The second half of the program is devoted to Igor Stravinsky’s Suite from The Firebird (1919 Revision), one of the composer’s masterpieces. It’s a treat to the eye as well, as Stravinsky works in “bouncing bows,” while trombones, basses and cellos actually “slide” down their instruments, with a few other subtle tricks. The music is exciting enough to keep the focus on the ear, but it’s fun to see it performed live.

It’s a grand program for a grand orchestra’s season finale. There are PSO events to come, through, the summer, though, to enjoy until the next season begins. You can check for events and dates on the PSO website.

TICKETS AND DETAILS

There are two remaining PSO Season Finale concerts, June 15, at 7:30 pm, or tomorrow afternoon, June 16, at 2:30 pm. Purchase tickets at the box-office or online at the PSO