Three distinct pieces of music create grand evening

Entering the cacophonous hall during tuning and loosening of fingers and lungs, one is struck by the activity and excitement on stage. The audience looks distinguished; that is to say, there was a lot of gray hair. So began the night at Heinz Hall, featuring the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concert entitled Composing with Words.

Three distinct pieces were performed: Peter Mennin’s Concertato for Orchestra, Moby Dick, started the evening; following was the world premiere of A Woman’s Life. After intermission, the orchestra returned for a full symphony — Sibelius’ No. 2.

Smartly dressed in elegant black, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, with nimble fingers especially flying on fortissimo sections, certainly lived up to its world class status. Conductor Leonard Slatkin spent the night in his element, nearly dancing in the fluidity of his movements, adding an occasional hop (one can only assume unconsciously) for emphasis as he directed the orchestra.

The single movement Moby Dick, inspired by Melville’s novel of the same name, begins simply but quickly progresses to an up-tempo, rhythmically-charged, powerful, yet harmonious level from which it rarely leaves. Featuring handoffs between melody-developing winds and melody-sustaining strings, this dynamic piece serves as a very well-thought opener that engages and energizes the audience and demonstrates the power of sound.

A Woman’s Life was born of a collaboration between Richard Danielpour, a Grammy Award-winning American composer, and poet Maya Angelou. Danielpour wrote it especially for dramatic soprano Angela Brown. Created to reflect the trajectory of a woman’s life, Angelou’s selected poem titles include “Little Girl Speakings,” “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me,” “Come and Be My Baby,” and others.

Starting with a childhood of innocence and whimsical carefree adulation for parents (“Little Girl Speakings”), expressed both musically and lyrically (“Ain’t nobody better than Daddy...”), the composition progresses through the insecurity of teenage years to the especially self-confident and evocatively sophisticated sexually charged “Come and Be My Baby.”

It warrants mention that soprano Brown could have better served this section by utilizing a more jazzy approach to her singing. A melancholy tone sets in with “My Life Has Turned to Blue,” aptly reflected in the music.

“The up-tempo parts meshed with the upbeat lyrics in some sections, but the more melancholy verses didn’t always fit the music,” observed Tracy Clough, a Columbia University English graduate student.

Returning from intermission, the orchestra performed Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 in D major, Opus 43. The Finnish composer’s symphony was finished in 1902 and consists of four movements: Allegretto, Andante ma rubato, Vivacissimo, and Finale: Allegro moderato.

Initially the melodic sections sound disjointed, as shifts of melodic continuity are short-lived. This is a hallmark of Sibelius’ compositional style.

The ending was a tease of continual climaxes that dissipated and built again ever higher until finally achieving restrained grandeur of musical accomplishment.