Biss makes the notes count with Pittsburgh Symphony

11.01.08
Jonathan Biss
Pittsburgh Post Gazette

The peculiar thing about music is that notes themselves don't move us. It's how they are shaped that can give us chills.

Take a spectacular moment from Richard Strauss' "An Alpine Symphony," which towered over Heinz Hall patrons last night. The hiker comes upon a mountain waterfall that Strauss depicts with a calculated variety of string, harp, woodwind treble techniques that seem to cascade onto the eardrums.

But if you listen too closely to one instrument, the effect evaporates.

But this doesn't just happen in tone poems. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concert, conducted by the Marek Janowski, opened with Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 22. Too often, professional pianists play Mozart as if every note were sacred. Even short notes in runs are emphasized. I side with Jonathan Biss, who last night focused on what the notes were trying to achieve.

When the spotlight, as it were, was on the piano part, the young American pianist articulated the notes poetically or with liveliness, depending on the theme. But in between, he almost blurred the notes. In his hands, the concerto spoke through a series of gestures rather than perfect note-on-note counterpoint and harmony. The result was a transporting performance in which some of the more arresting elements of the concerto jumped out -- such as the icy outbursts of the Andante, and the minuet episode of the Rondo.

Recently, Janowski was offered the position of "Principal Conductor for Life" by the musicians of his Radio Symphony Orchestra Berlin. At present, it is just an offer in the preliminary stages, but it shows you the potential chemistry he can have with a group. Hopefully that will transpire here, too. But as of now, there is just something missing in his conducting of the PSO.

Last night, Janowski asked very little from the reduced orchestra for the Mozart. And in the Strauss, which was recorded for a forthcoming disc, was spot-on, but not inspiring.

Of course, this is extreme subjectiveness on my part, but I can point to some musical elements. He started the tone poem, which begins at night, too loudly, forcing the resulting sunrise to be louder still, rather than warm and full. Also, the horns and Wagner tubas were held in check, their soaring theme subdued especially in the "Vision" moment when the hiker reaches the summit.

In general, Janowski treated this work as a symphony rather than a tone poem, not crafting the various scenes and moments nearly enough, but the percussionists were stout, many soloists contributed wonderfully and the offstage brass (including quick-moving trombonists) had excellent ensemble.