Young pianist excels at Mozart

11.01.08
Jonathan Biss
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Contrasts are the life of music, that is unless minimalism is involved.

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's concert Friday night at Heinz Hall consisted of just two pieces, but each was full of internal variety and the two could hardly be more different.

Young pianist Jonathan Biss was the marvelous soloist in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 22 with conductor Marek Janowski and a small orchestra before intermission.

Janowski led a well-crafted orchestral introduction, nicely delineated and organic in its unfolding. When Biss entered he seized the musical direction, though always ready to be a supportive colleague when other instrumentalists had the lead.

Biss offered a highly nuanced interpretation, at all points as natural as it was individual. That is very rare.

The soloist's spontaneity was challenging for the conductor and orchestra, who were sometimes late in picking up the beat when it moved a bit forward.

The cadenzas were by Biss and were both interesting and persuasive. And two of the smaller cadenzas in the finale had the wit to find contrasting lead-ins to the orchestra that did not use a trill!

Janowski and the symphony's performances of "An Alpine Symphony" last night, tonight and Sunday afternoon are being recorded for release on the PentaTone label. Unfortunately, someone's cell phone went off in the quiet opening.

There are 22 sections in "An Alpine Symphony," but it's hard to tell them apart until you know the piece. The symphony might have projected those titles at the appropriate moment on the video screens on either side of the stage and not merely printed them in the program booklet.

The recording should be superb, based on the many excellences heard last night, qualities that were held together masterfully by Janowski.

The orchestra sounded rich and deep as well as brilliant, and featured 16 woodwind players and 22 brass players. Principal oboist Cynthia De Almeida's tone was full of character, as were other expressive elements, in her solo "At the Summit" and in many other passages that were solos or in ensemble.

Principal horn William Caballero and his colleagues were indefatigable, while the depth of the low brass had plenty of power.

Before the concert, symphony board chairman Dick Simmons paid tribute to and asked for a moment of silence for longtime board member Edward Loughney, who died last week at 103. He continued attending concerts until earlier this season.