Concert review: PSO succeeds with world premiere

Stefan Jackiw
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

By Elizabeth Bloom

Composer Christopher Rouse gave little indication about his thoughts behind "Supplica," a 10-minute work for which the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and conductor Juraj Valcuha gave the world premiere Friday night. Both "Supplica" and Mr. Rouse's upcoming Fourth Symphony "possess meanings for me that must remain personal ... what I hope will be heard as both an intimate and an impassioned communication in sound must mean to each listener what it will, without further intercession or guidance from the me," he wrote in the program notes.

"Supplica" was as mysterious as that introduction and, subjectively speaking, as affecting. Featuring a pared-down orchestra without woodwinds or percussion, it opened with slow, quiet violas and plucked harp, a motif that returned later. Haunting strings filled in to create beauty both visceral and jarring; that disturbing quality grew with the volume of added instruments, with brass entering last. Mr. Valcuha's flowing style added poignancy and nostalgia (again, subjectively speaking). A surprising explosion of dissonance in the largely lyrical piece appeared suddenly, like an unpleasant memory. The piece ultimately fades to silence -- a moving ending in line with the rest of the work. The layers suggested more opportunities to listen to "Supplica" would be rewarding.

Next came Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor, performed by Stefan Jackiw. The performance demonstrated the violinist's virtuosity, as well as his ability to forgo it for the sake of stirring lyricism. In the exposition of the opening movement, he delivered a big, clarion tone and a searching quality in the first theme, clawing to the comforting respite of the second theme. The cadenza was at first forceful, then light and glassy; he drew attention with tone in lieu of fireworks, saved for other moments, such as the coda of the final movement.

Debussy's "La Mer" and Ravel's "La Valse" made up the second half, representing French music written at the beginning of the 20th century and separated by a war. "La Mer" was competent but not especially inspiring. Mr. Valcuha ran a tight ship and cultivated shimmering textures from the orchestra, but until "Dialogue du vent et de la mer" it was somewhat lackluster, save for some solos (which are hardly the point). During that final sketch, the ensemble maintained the even texture while letting colors come out: haunting violas, oboes and harp; bright trumpets and glockenspiel; and a rocking quality that seemed to be missing from the opening sketch.

The conductor drew a more compelling performance of "La Valse," a mini-narrative of the Viennese waltz. Whether the work symbolizes postwar Europe is up for debate. In Mr. Valcuha's interpretation, the undisturbed waltz theme played by the orchestra was as beautiful as anything in the Debussy. A limping quality and loud, thumping bass drum foreshadowed the dance's later deterioration. The orchestra played that distorted theme with a grandiose, urgent grandiosity, as if the waltz didn't know the unfortunate fate that awaited it.