Pianist Ohlsson and Pittsburgh Symphony raise the roof at Arsht Center

02.29.08
Garrick Ohlsson
Miami Herald

On an unusually cold night, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra heated up the Knight Concert Hall, richly demonstrating why this extraordinary ensemble should long ago have earned admittance to the top tier of American orchestras.

Under principal guest conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier, the Pittsburghians displayed a striking blend of fire, refinement and corporate virtuosity without a weak link from top to bottom. Tortelier and the orchestra were aided Wednesday by their guest soloist, Garrick Ohlsson, whose full-metal assault on Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 served up one of the most remarkable solo outings of the season.

In our musically proficient era, there are plenty of pianists who can handle the daunting technical hurdles of the mighty ''Rach 3,'' with its fusillade of notes and near-constant digital workout over 40 minutes. Yet rarely will one hear a performance that eso blends the aching Russian nostalgia and knuckle-busting bravura into such a seamless and exhilarating whole.

Ohlsson is a big man with a massive technique, and his iron-fingered power in the most note-strewn passages is astounding, even in an era of bounteous prodigies. Yet Ohlsson's less-flashy moments were equally impressive: a playful, insouciant touch in the Intermezzo's middle section and a lilting delicacy in the lyric passages. The pianist ratcheted up the excitement with unflagging momentum, and with equally engaged support by Tortelier and the orchestra, the performance culminated in a blazing coda that brought the audience to its feet.

Ohlsson's magisterial Rachmaninoff was a tough act to follow, but, amazingly, Tortelier and the orchestra managed to keep the adrenaline high with their grandly invigorating take on Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique.

No French reticence here. Sans baton, Tortelier's balletic direction coaxed a vital, nuanced, often unorthodox reading that consistently put across the strangeness of the composer's opium-fueled musical vision.

The March to the Scaffold had the requisite brassy punch and the final bacchanale plenty of unhinged excitement, with the Pittsburgh winds reveling in their solo opportunities. Yet the French conductor avoided the grand showpiece approach to Berlioz's warhorse, often spotlighting its subtler scoring and more intimate moments. The Scene in the Fields, often treated as a mere pastoral interlude between the fireworks, here became the heart of the work: a deep, spacious tone poem with evocative oboe and English horn dialogue and a remarkable array of delicate half-tones and expressive detailing.

The only disappointment was that, once again, the hall didn't sound tuned properly. Concert Association officials said that the settings were the same as those used for the New World Symphony, but there was a distinct lack of bloom, color and sonority and a gaping void in the midrange. Garrick Ohlsson's magisterial playing surmounted the acoustical issues, but his Steinway still sounded metallic and shallow without much body or focus.

Arsht Center officials need to get Artec's acoustical consultants back on full retainer, since the center clearly has not found the optimum settings for events featuring piano and orchestra.