A look at the PSO's new season

There are certain things that are an unavoidable part of Pittsburgh: the Steelers, bridges, ketchup. At least, that’s what hometown pride dictates. Europeans, on the other hand, don’t associate Pittsburgh with football; rather, they think about the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO). The PSO is a world-class orchestra that puts Pittsburgh on the music map; the PSO has had several very successful European tours in the last couple of years.

The 2006–2007 PSO concert season has something for everyone, whether you’re a painter, a literature student, an architect, a feminist, or a culture buff. There are certain features of music that apply to many different fields of study.

This PSO season is full of exciting programs. Cynthia Koledo DeAlmeida, principal oboe of the PSO and a professor in the music department at Carnegie Mellon, said, “It is hard for me to pick one special concert — I love so many of the pieces we will be playing this season.”

The PSO’s opening concert, on Friday, September 29, features Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. This concert will be very appealing to painters and art students because Rimsky-Korsakov was a master at orchestration. He created wonderful colors by combining different instruments. Scheherazade is a swirling pool of color. Just like painters, composers must take color into consideration. Painters think about texture just as composers think about texture.

The connection between musical color and actual color can be more than a metaphor. One composer, Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992), had a type of synesthesia that caused him to perceive certain colors when he heard certain harmonies. Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which two or more senses are fused. Rimsky-Korsakov had synesthesia as well.

DeAlmeida highlighted the opening concert. “The audience will hear many fascinating and hauntingly beautiful melodies from solo instruments throughout the orchestra,” she said. “I believe that the more a listener recognizes these different voices in the orchestra, the more interested and engaged they become in the music.”

Students of literature should find many interesting concerts this season, too. Many composers found inspiration in literature. On Friday, October 30, the PSO will perform Richard Strauss’s piece for cello, violin, and orchestra, Don Quixote, subtitled Fantasy Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character. Here, Strauss gives a wonderfully detailed and humorous portrait of Don Quixote that rivals Cervantes’. And, of course, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade is based on The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, a great piece of Persian literature.

Architects might be surprised to discover that composers must also consider the architecture and shape of their music. Architects should check out Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, which will be performed on October 6. This bold symphony is all about gestures and shape. This symphony has very powerful moments where the entire orchestra is playing. Here, the architect should listen to where instruments are playing (high or low), where they are going (are their notes ascending, or descending?), and the length for which they are played.

The classical period, which included Haydn and Mozart, was a return to the classical style of Greece. Music of the time adopted values of the other arts, particularly architecture, which valued order, economy, and balance. Architects then should look for these values in Mozart’s Symphony No. 25, which will be performed on February 9.

While women’s advocacy groups have had lots of success in recent years, many women overlook the position of women in classical music. In the classical music world, there have been many great female violinists, pianists, cellists, and singers, but women have generally not joined the ranks of the great conductors. There is one exception, however: Marin Alsop. Alsop will be the first woman to head a major American orchestra when she becomes music director for the Baltimore Symphony’s 2007–2008 season. Alsop will conduct a concert on Friday, November 9.

Looking back through history, most composers have been male. There was no female counterpart for Mozart or Brahms. In the 20th century, female composers became more prominent. The PSO will be premiering Sofia Gubaidulina’s Feast During a Plague on December 1. This piece was co-commissioned by the PSO and the Philadelphia Orchestra, which played it last year. Alex Ross, of The New Yorker, said of Feast During a Plague: “[the Philadelphia premier] had the power of a prophetic utterance. Gubaidulina intended her work as an eagle-eyed view of a riven world — abject misery on the one hand, empty-headed pleasure-seeking on the other — and she found a potent metaphor for her vision.” This piece has literary inspiration too: It is based on a text by Pushkin, which in turn was inspired by John Wilson’s 1816 poem The City of the Plague.

There are several national programs in this year’s PSO season. For lovers of Spanish culture, the March 16 concert will feature music by Spanish composers including Albeniz, Rodrigo, and de Falla. Another concert is called “Nordic Nights” and will feature music of Grieg (from Norway) and Nielsen (from Denmark) on February 1. Russians should be interested in the October 6 concert, which marks the centennial of Shostakovich’s birth with a program of his music, including Symphony No. 5 and the Piano Concerto No. 1.