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PSO concert's formula equals success

01.30.10
Gil Shaham
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

By Andrew Druckenbrod

Intermission at this Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concert might as well have been an equal sign in what amounted to a giant musical formula.

In the first half were two examples of the classical period by Haydn and Mozart, coincidently Violin Concertos No. 2 each performed with ravishing tone by violinist Gil Shaham.

In the second half was Mahler's manipulation of that classical style in his Symphony No. 4. It was almost as if music director Manfred Honeck were a mathematician, carefully balancing the equation to let the audience in on what Mahler was doing. Nice of him, since the first audiences (and critics) that heard the Fourth Symphony missed the boat pretty badly on this one.

When Mahler conducted the premiere of his Symphony No. 4 in Munich in 1901, boos rang out in the hall. But today, it's hard to understand how the audience didn't realize why he was using ultra-simple themes and orchestration instead of his typical aggressive and sometimes terrifying music. After all, he ends the work with a setting for soprano and orchestra of a poem in which a child sings about what heaven is, or might be like. Obviously the naive music was meant to mirror that, and if you listened closely to Honeck's interpretation of it Friday night at Heinz Hall, the PSO also revealed Mahler's constant questioning of this child-like state. At all times, Mahler is reminding us that even the most innocent picture of heaven is tied to Earth.

Mahler achieved this by playing with style -- specifically that classical style of Mozart and Haydn. It is extremely hard to separate a style of music from the time in which it arose. If Beyonce were to release a new song in the style of big band jazz or Bruce Springsteen a new Elvis-like rock-n-roll tune, we would see them as throwbacks or tributes, not new explorations. Mahler was counting on this in the Fourth. He expected that by using music from an earlier style that was already 100 years past would evoke a simpler time, much in the way folk music is used today. So, in this regard, one can see how early audiences had trouble understanding it.

Honeck's reading succeeded because he treated the galant style of the work sincerely and then upset it by manipulating dynamics. He kept the work from turning sappy or saccharine. This meant pulling back on the strings even more than he is sometimes wont to do, and it also meant emphasizing the solo elements of the symphony.

Principal after principal stepped up with rich and colorful solos, from William Caballero's sometimes radiant, sometimes protesting horn to Michael Rusinek's alternately full-bodied and wailing clarinet to Andres Cardenes' scordatura violin (tuned up a tone). The latter was a tour-de-force for the concertmaster as he constantly switched violins in the second movement to assume the character of the Devil. Oboist Cynthia DeAlmeida, timpanist Christopher Allen, trumpeter George Vosburgh and the entire cello and bass sections also played crucial roles. Unfortunately, the soprano who sang the song "Life in Heaven" in the finale did not follow suit. Sunhae Im didn't muster the volume and didn't enunciate well. While this must be treated in a child-like manner, the part must be heard.

Shaham, of course, didn't exist just to set up the Mahler. That was a nice byproduct of his exquisite performance of the two concertos. His reading of Mozart's concerto was inspiring, but the surprise for me was the Haydn, whose unhurried treatment of the exquisite but deliberate middle movement was like watching some spectacular HDTV sports highlight in slow motion. Shaham was far less animated on stage than his last appearance and took the pose of someone humbled by the music. His ability to play legato even in the quickest of runs (especially in his encore, the Preludio from Bach's Partita No. 3) infused this music with winning flair.

Problem solved: both sides of this equation were equally masterful in the hands of these artists.