PSO begins 2007–2008 season

Heinz Hall sparkled Friday night, and it wasn’t just the chandeliers. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra opened their season with class: an all-American overture, a celebrated soloist, and a classical blockbuster.

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO) has consistently been esteemed as a world-class orchestra in recent years, on par with the old “Big Five” American orchestras of New York, Cleveland, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Under the baton of Yan Pascal Tortelier on opening weekend, the PSO opening program did not disappoint.

John Corigliano’s Promenade Overture started the night. Best known for his emotional film score The Red Violin, Corigliano took a drastically different step in this comical and delightful piece. With only percussionists onstage at the beginning and various musicians gliding, hopping, or marching as the piece progressed, instruments in tow, there was certainly an air of amusement felt by both the audience and the players. The theatrics allowed audiences to see PSO musicians in a different light, but the players never lost sight of musical integrity, pulling the overture off in a bold and undeniably American style.

Russian pianist Alexander Toradze’s rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1 was unique and heartfelt. A world-renowned soloist, chamber musician, and pedagogue, Toradze displayed his multifaceted talents by performing Tchaikovsky’s popular work. The first movement was stirring, with the orchestra’s famous opening line followed by piano chords that sounded almost noble. The orchestra played majestically without overpowering the soloist, while echoing the melody of the piano convincingly. During this movement, Toradze became so enveloped in the passion of the music that he even conducted for a bit. The second movement was equally filled with quiet energy; all of the orchestral solos were very melodic in line and complemented the sentiments of the piano. The pianist and the orchestra handled the third movement masterfully, encompassing its dancelike themes and technicalities. Toradze did a fine job of acknowledging the folkloric themes of Tchaikovsky’s work as well as its virtuosic aspects. He played very close to the piano, lending an introspective element to his playing, and yet demonstrating virtuosic grandeur at times.

In all, it was a wonderful performance, with Maestro Tortelier turning around to the audience a brief second before the end of the concerto, as if to bring the listeners into the conclusion’s raw energy. When Tortelier jumped and raised his arms in triumph upon ending the concerto, Toradze stood from his piano bench, and shook Tortelier’s hand in collective celebration.

Hector Berlioz’s dramatic yet charming Symphonie Fantastique closed the program. The PSO did both parts of this piece justice: the light, fanciful dances and the dark, climatic moments. One could almost feel fate driving this fantastic piece to its end, reminiscent of the form of Tchaikovsky’s later symphonies.

Overall, the PSO was polished and energetic on this impressive opening night. Tortelier has exhibited himself as a genius at emoting the music with gestures that suitably articulate the flow of the musical line. One can never underestimate the effect of a dramatic downbeat, colored by Tortelier’s punches, or the sweet sentimentality of a dance, reflected by his subtle swaying. The instrumentalists also contributed to the evening’s success, presenting each solo with a seamless transition as well as performing the tutti passages (when all the instruments play together) with collective group energy.

The audience gave a lasting standing ovation, and the sentiment seemed to be reciprocated onstage, possibly foreshadowing the success of the 2007–2008 season. While the orchestra has worked hard to create an engaging season, the PSO administration has also been working to bring audiences to Heinz Hall to enjoy the gift of classical music. When it all comes together, it is almost magical. Perhaps concertmaster and Carnegie Mellon faculty member Andres Cardenes said it best: “[I enjoy] the responsibility and challenge of playing your best at all times, plus feeling the energy of an excited and engaged audience.”