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French conductor's makes impressive debut

06.07.08
Garrick Ohlsson
Pittsburgh Tribune

The impressive debut of French conductor Louis Langree does not prevent a huge gulf in quality between the halves of the Pittsburgh Symphony's weekend concerts at Heinz Hall. It is a reminder of the counterintuitive truth that in the arts less can be infinitely more.

Langree began with the symphony premiere of "Masonic Funeral Music" by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. This short piece -- about five minutes -- was written soon after the composer joined a lodge of Freemasons in Vienna. There were spiritual rationalists in an autocratic and dogmatic society.

The conductor is best known in America as music director of the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center in New York City. His Mozart Friday night was exquisite, starting with the beautifully paced funeral music. The sonorities were transparent, the journey no less emotional for being lucid.

Pianist Garrick Ohlsson proved himself a true Mozartean in his performance of the composer's Piano Concerto No. 27, written about 11 months before he died. It's a big contrast with what we've been hearing from him in recent seasons - the music of Russian late Romantic Sergei Rachmaninoff, which is as extravagant emotionally as it is in virtuosity.

Langree began the concerto with a welcome blend of gentleness and decisiveness, and plenty of variety for the sequence of musical ideas. The winds were in lovely balance. Bassoonist Nancy Goeres was especially eloquent in the slow movement.

Ohlsson moved easily between solo playing and support. Even his solo work had chamber music sensitivity. And his control of dynamics and steadiness of pacing permitted him the nuances that best serve this remarkable composition.

The soloist's idiomatic assurance was so complete he could and did add some ornaments that sounded completely natural and advanced the music's spirit.

The soloist's encore was the finale of Mozart's Piano Sonata, K. 330, delivered with the same poise and quiet wit as the concerto.

Langree was impressive after intermission in leading Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 11, "The Year 1905." His command of orchestral sonorities and careful attention to phrasing, atmosphere and emotions were admirable.

Much louder and longer than the Mozart concerto, the Shostakovich symphony is comparatively ordinary despite some interesting musical ideas. It is programmatic music, ostensibly about the brutality of suppressing the Russian revolution of 1905.

But the composer really had in mind the then-recent bloody Soviet suppression of a revolt in Hungary. Although some commentators argue forcefully that Shostakovich served his communist masters, they were as duped by the composer as the communist regime was.