Symphony charms, challenges

12.15.12
Gil Shaham
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

By Mark Kanny

Concerts do not exist in isolation, and sometimes previously scheduled music doesn‘t fit a special occasion.

Prior to the start of Friday night‘s Pittsburgh Symphony concert in Heinz Hall, timpanist Edward Stephan walked onstage, in front of his colleagues, and invited the audience to join them in a moment of silence for the victims of the shooting tragedy in Newtown, Conn.

The music that began the concert — the first local performance of Sinfonia No. 4 “Strands” by George Walker — was a challenging mix of disparate ideas and the emotions they arouse.

The composer, who is 90, has been highly honored during his career, including winning the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Sinfonia No. 4 “Strands” was written in 2011 on a co-commission from the Pittsburgh, National, Cincinnati and New Jersey symphonies, and given its world premiere in Newark in March.

Walker set himself the task of “intertwining” melodically unrelated materials in composing the new piece, beginning with an intense section that presents several significant ideas.

This may have been conceived abstractly, or he may have been thinking of something in the past, but it fit Friday‘s feelings. The music is intense and angular, with frequent changes of meter. Later sections employ fragments of gospel tunes, but the piece develops with a more intellectual method.

Guest conductor Arild Remmereit was not at his best during this concert, but then he lost his job as music director of the Rochester, N.Y., Philharmonic in a dispute with management less than a month ago.

Gil Shaham was the soloist in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart‘s Violin Concerto in A, subtitled “Turkish” and the last of five he wrote in 1775.

Shaham was in a particularly mercurial mood, which threw many tempo curve balls at the conductor and orchestra. It was not only that he‘d burst on a new tempo for different material. He also was prone to changing pace within a measure.

The concert concluded with Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky‘s Symphony No. 1 (“Winter Dreams”). It is full of charm but also problems, and can be much more effective than it was Friday night. Apart from imbalances, which also afflicted the Mozart, Remmereit failed to move beyond short-term ideas, such as moving the tempo forward or coloring a turn of phrase, to a vision that had artistic arch.