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Conductor Cardenes shows promise

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Andres Cardenes wanted to downplay it, but some things simply make their own mark. Last night at Heinz Hall, he conducted his first scheduled subscription concert with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

Cardenes, the PSO's concertmaster since 1989, has been occasionally stretching a few feet from that chair to the conductor's podium over the last 10 years or so.

But his conducting of the Pittsburgh Symphony Chamber Orchestra, his increased role as a cover conductor (leading to a last-minute fill-in two years ago) and even most his other gigs don't compare to a full subscription weekend of a major orchestra. There was some concern among some orchestra members and myself if this was the right avenue for the PSO to go, since it typically hires conductors with much more experience. Not a knock on Cardenes, mind you, but a consideration of how best the organization should proceed with its limited number of subscription weeks.

Consider that concern out the window. With time to prepare and the bright lights on him, Cardenes took his conducting to a new level in a program of Mozart, Schumann and Hindemith. His command of complex textures and his thoughtful approach to the overall shape of the music was masterful.

The concert opened with an odd sound -- that of the orchestra tuning to a trumpet (George Vosburgh's) rather than the typical oboe. That's because Hindemith's Concert Music for Brass and Strings doesn't call for any woodwinds. If this piece is not in the standard repertoire, it is orbiting it, yet the PSO performed it only once, in 1955 under William Steinberg. Much more than a showcase for brass, it displays multiple colors and textures, many created by difficult part-writing.

Jerking his baton upward on nearly every beat, Cardenes balanced the work superbly. That is saying something with the red-faces in the brass section throughout this piece, as Hindemith calls for some heroically long playing, especially by the horns. Solos by Vosburgh, Peter Sullivan, William Caballero and others resonated.

Schumann's Symphony No. 3, "Rhenish," found the conductor plumbing depths and emphasizing accents. He avoided common problems such as letting the thick textures and doublings obscure theme, bringing out a festive joy to the first and last movements while gracefully navigating the inner movements. Tempos were proper and the piece simply glowed with inner vitality.

In between, Cardenes played the role of accompanist well, welcoming violinist Chee-Yun for Mozart's Violin Concert No. 3. Cardenes treated it almost like chamber music. This fit Chee-Yun well, both with her light tone and collaborative spirit, even playing with the first violins to start the piece.

Lately, Cardenes has been talking about picking up the baton more, here and elsewhere. If this concert is any measure, conductor Cardenes has a promising future.