Before conductor Erich Kunzel set the Pittsburgh Symphony Pops on fire and blew audiences away at Heinz Hall with a program of John Williams’s film music, he achieved similarly exciting results with the Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic.
Tuesday night, Kunzel was guest conductor of the Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic in a program featuring music by American composers: Leonard Bernstein’s “Overture” to Candide, Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2 “Romantic”, and orchestral selections from George Gershwin’s opera, Porgy and Bess.
Leonard Bernstein, though often considered the first great American conductor, was also an important composer. As a conductor, Bernstein had many opportunities to conduct — and record — his own music. Bernstein recorded “Overture” multiple times with the London Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and others. Bernstein also recorded some of Gershwin’s music, even playing the piano and conducting in Rhapsody in Blue.
The “Overture,” which opened the concert, is full of excitement. The Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic gave a thrilling and virtuosic — not to mention breathlessly fast-paced — performance. Near the end of the piece, the music changes both style and meter on a dime, a dangerous proposition for orchestras and guest conductors to pull off. In this, the Philharmonic was able to succeed.
Gershwin’s music is well-represented in Pittsburgh this season. The Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic, as well as the Pittsburgh Symphony Pops has already performed his work, and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra will play “An American in Paris” in May. Gershwin’s music is often played by both Pops and classical orchestras because his music fits well into each world. Gershwin brought jazz music into the concert hall with his famous Rhapsody in Blue, which pianist Kevin Cole performed masterfully in January with the Pittsburgh Symphony Pops.
Erich Kunzel and the Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic gave a very amusing performance of selections from Porgy and Bess. Kunzel’s skilled conducting guided some very fine playing from Carnegie Mellon’s orchestra. The performance also featured a couple of nice touches, including a trio of saxophone players and Irvin Kauffman on banjo. Gershwin’s music is both tuneful and stylistically demanding. While Kunzel’s interpretation was exhilarating, he was too aggressive. The orchestra played all of the solos skillfully, although perhaps not as stylishly as possible.
As a composer, Howard Hanson made his biggest contribution to music and American culture through education, rather than his own compositions. Hanson was the first director of the revered Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, a position that he held for 40 years. There, he conducted and recorded a lot of his own music in addition to that of some other American composers.
Perhaps a bit brief, Hansons’ second symphony is 30 minutes in three movements. Titled “Romantic,” the symphony is rich in elegant melodies and explosive charges of happiness, although the whole affair is too easy: The piece is much less a journey than it is a big party. Kunzel and the Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic’s account was rather narcissistic; together, they gave a romantic account of the symphony at the expense of its darker elements. The playing, however, was spot-on, and the frequent horn solos were played with confidence and strength.