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The Magnificent Mahler Fifth propels PSO to Next Weekend’s Season Finale

The orchestra has demonstrated dedication and resilience that deserves our attendance and support. 

By YVONNE HUDSON

The significance of this weekend’s Pittsburgh Symphony concert is multi-faceted. It’s a sparkling diamond dramatically reflecting the influence and talent of this city’s world-class orchestra. The program features the return of an American woman’s composition, a world premiere written with stellar PSO players as inspiration, and the magnificent Fifth Symphony of Gustave Mahler.

With Maestro Manfred Honeck at the helm and virtually every PSO player featured in memorable solo and section spotlights, this concert is a treasure for devoted fans of this orchestra. This program drives the PSO orchestra to next weekend’s season finale and displays what this orchestra does, excelling in diverse traditional classics and important new music featuring today’s top composers. 

New Yorker Jessie Montgomery’s “Coincident Dances” (2017) has its PSO debut. The composer brings her impressions to life from hearing the simultaneous musical styles that pour from cars, open windows, and personal headphones on the streets of New York. Weaving influences of styles from English consort, samba, Ghanaian dance motifs, swing, and even techno, Montgomery takes us on an eclectic musical adventure in just 12 minutes. Her New York Minute–in the context of this complex concert menu–is a delightfully satisfying appetizer to enjoy. This piece might be a soundtrack with images that bring Montogemony’s hometown to visual life, but her music likewise takes us there.

Next, a road trip and world premiere: “Songs of the Open Road for OboeHorn, and Orchestra.” Composer Michael Daugherty steps out with Maestro Honeck and two featured soloists wonderfully showcased in front of the orchestra. The composer explains his inspiration for creating a coast-to-coast musical experience incorporating his home regions and those of Cynthia Koledo DeAlmeida (oboe) and William Caballero (horn). Both lauded principal players and educators; they are stellar artists and collaborators.

William Caballero (horn) and Cynthia Koledo DeAlmeida | PSO image

Daughtry’s premiere takes us across the US in 23 inspiring minutes, and images accompany his score. Certainly, it’s a reminder to travel with time to savor memorable places. 

On Friday night, Maestro Honeck reminded the audience that the orchestra was playing the work for its very first audience. 

Out front, the oboist and horn player focus on one of those delightfully personal artistic experiences. We get to take in the artistry of these impressive principal players beyond their more typical section roles several roles back. 

Blue takes the place of the typically formal black attire, reflecting the blue skies and water of the American landscape. 

Seven locations are musically depicted. The first two–Big Sur on the Pacific Coast Highway and the Continental Divide in Colorado–start the trip. Suffice it to say that the soloists are featured equally in solos and duets with smooth woodwinds and horns. It’s a sweet, dramatic drive to the two central movements. Daughtery captures the musical essence of Mishigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes, his home area. 

Then, we are treated with a personal visit representing the Jamestown, NY, farm and setting for the soloists’ wedding there. Significantly, this historic town is the birthplace of Lucille Ball, and the museum commemorating her comedy and career features the story of her work and marriage to Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz. So, the piece reflects the couple’s TV comedy, Desi’s Cuban music, and the spirit of the featured artists. It’s hard to think of a more personal tribute to each soloist and their artistic and personal partnerships.

The gorgeous folk song “Shenandoah” is led by DeAlmeida in the variations of Blue Ridge. The sweeping orchestra milks the sentiment of the traditional tune but is not cloying through Daugherty’s lovely musical explorations.

The piece’s finale echoes the Cuban vibes of Key West, a place like no other where “the party never stops,” as Daughtery Says in his intro. 

After a considerate long interval, the orchestra returns for the heart of this concert, a 76-minute journey with Gustav Mahler. Almost indescribable in expanse and inspiration, the Mahler 5th is best savored by submitting to the musical majesty of both composer and orchestra. The stamina to perform intense, non-stop classical symphonies is impressive. The PSO indeed delivers. Honeck makes conducting this epic piece almost look easy, but each section and many section leaders meet varied demands throughout.

Three parts and five movements stretch the limits of everyone playing on stage. The reverent drama of two opening marches draws us in with beckoning horns and uplifting motives.

These are a prologue to the magnificent “Scherzo: Kraftig, nicht zu scenell,” the complex center of this symphony. It’s a satisfying main course that almost defies description. As it’s Honeck and the PSO, this long, demanding movement is perfect 

Then, the closing Adigietto and Rondo each supply many moments of lovely recurrent themes and urgent statements of finality, as well as closing moments with the full orchestra at work. The new listener may be fooled, realizing the dramatic ending is still to come. The artistic manipulation is admirable. Honeck leads all the players to the satisfying closure of this Mahler masterpiece. 

Players are treated to solo phrases, often echoed by the orchestra. It’s intense work for everyone on stage as they deliver an unforgettable and complete experience. The applause and cheers after the Mahler–and each piece on Friday–further affirms that there’s no need for any musical dessert.

Deep musical analysis is less vital here than telling you the music will move and engage even those who have never attended a live concert. Our more than 125-year-old Pittsburgh Symphony has continued growing as an international force and regional arts leader. 

Now, with the new Steinway that celebrates the PSO’s 125, next weekend the season closes appropriately as it began with Yefim Bronfman returning to the keyboard, this time for Beethoven’s Concerto Number 4. Composer Michael Daughtery is back with a nod to another international artist from our region. His “Fifteen: Symphony Fantasy on the Art of Andy Warhol,” first premiered in 2022 by the PSO, returns. Then, one of the most stunning and historic pieces closes the PSO season. Igor Stravinsky‘s Suite from “The Firebird “highlights the dramatic storytelling of his score for the Ballet Russe’s The Firebird in 1910, transporting the young composer to international fame.

TICKETS AND DETAILS

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s Darkness to Light: Manfred & Mahler 5 has remaining performances at Heinz Hall on Saturday, June 8, at 7:30 pm and Sunday, June 9, 2024, at 2:30 pm. Tickets at

Fifteen & Firebird: The Season Finale has performances on Friday, June 14th, at 8:00 pm, Saturday, June 15th, at 7:00 pm and Sunday, June 16th, at 2:30 pm.

If you’re interested in the PSO, get to Heinz Hall for at least several concerts to experience some of the most familiar and fascinating new works. Heinz Hall has been further restored and cultivated as the PSO’s venue, from the improved auditorium acoustics to the outdoor courtyard with its sizeable artistic water features. The PSO players demonstrate the joy in performances of great music and will do it all again next season, opening on September 21. The hall is a place to relax, meet up, and enjoy. The online calendar features everything in Heinz Hall and some outdoor summer concerts.