Three Rivers of Energy
Gioachino Rossini: Overture to La Scala di Seta
Igor Stravinsky: Petrouchka (revised 1947 version)
Johannes Brahms: Symphony # 2
Mariss Jansons (conductor)
Anne Martindale Williams, principal cellist of the Pittsburgh Symphony, is a positive dynamo of energy. It would be wrong to describe her activity as sitting in her chair, rather she bounces more off of it than on as she kidnaps her instrument into a whirlwind of adventure and activity and exudes enough elan vital for a hundred complacent professional string players of other ensembles. She treats her cello like a percussion instrument at times, reminding one of Joan Jeanrenaud, late of the Kronos Quartet, and can yet also produce the most romantically lyrical of melodic lines while still engaging her kinetic, frenetic body in a dance of total ecstasy. It is hard to take one’s eyes off of her, but as this critic looked around at the other members of this most youthful of major American symphony orchestras, it was obvious that this spirit is contagious. The Pittsburghers play with an intensity unsurpassed in contemporary orchestras and I caught many of them bobbing and weaving and coaxing their instruments to produce just a little more warmth and depth as they communed with them almost religiously. Youth is the keystone of this ensemble, from the fresh faced players to the fifty something conductor, who has come back from his coronary looking like a lad of thirty. Even Andre Previn, former leader of the band and omnipresent backstage last evening, is remarkably youthful in look and spirit. What a refreshing change from the tired forces of many of the top rated performing ensembles who haunt our concert stages!
Energy is the driving emotion throughout a Pittsburgh concert. The Silken Ladder is one of those Rossini operas which remain obscure even within his lost ornamented style, but the overture has always remained as a paragon of pulsating drive. Jansons pushed his engine hard, delivering a Toscanini-like performance which left us breathless. The pace was supercharged and the players were up to the chase. I know a woman who used to get her kids off to school in the morning by playing this piece and the rollicking, devil-may-care style of this ensemble was perfect to convey both Rossini’s verve and his ultimate love of fun.
Igor Stravinsky went through many stylistic changes in his life and in the 1940’s took a fresh look at his older compositions. Wishing to pare away his perceived excesses, he drastically revised his bipolar (both harmonically and rhythmically) ballet score to make it sound "cleaner". The resulting angularity is noticeably different from the Rimskiian source and it takes an orchestra of uncommon abilities to pull it off. Thankfully, this type of stopping and starting on a dime is a forte of the Pittsburgh Symphony and they painted a wild Mondrian picture of the puppet’s world. Jansons understands well that the composer’s revisions were influenced by the jazz of the 1920’s and the resulting performance was absolutely thrilling, both intonationally and rhythmically. It may be the hardest of all orchestral moves to all stop together and these people accomplished the feat consistently. Further, the energy was positively nuclear as the drums propelled us from one flickering tableau to the next, the excitement culminating in the Shrovetide Fair almost orgiastic. It would not have been out of place for a large pink bunny to appear in the busy percussion section.
Of course vitality can’t carry the day alone. The Brahms was a good performance, excellent in fact in spots (the winds of the third movement particularly), but here Jansons’ lackluster phrasing and the orchestra’s good but not burnished string tone left this listener wanting more. Still it was a treat to hear Brahms in this celebratory year of 20th century music and made us all remember that the music of the 1900’s did not spring Minerva-like from the head of Zeus but rather was a natural evolution (although disguised as a rebellion) from what came before. Overall this orchestra is poised to leap into the top echelon of America’s ensembles and, if last night is any indication, they may just bound right over their greybeard brethren and steal the laurel wreath.
Frederick L. Kirshnit