PSO showcases new compositions, players’ talent

Brahms, Mozart, and Beethoven — these are the names we typically assign to classical music. But at Carnegie Mellon Night with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO) at Heinz Hall last Friday, there were none of the compositions of those long-dead European men. In fact, the pieces on the program were exclusively 20th- and 21st-century works. Carnegie Mellon Night at the PSO offered a vibrant and contemporary program to Carnegie Mellon students in the audience and showcased the talent of PSO members.

Despite the concert’s advertisement as Carnegie Mellon Night, young people were a minority in the audience and many of the seats were empty. Though a fair number of students came out for the discounted prices and special student reception after the performance, many missed the opportunity and the concert hall was mostly populated by older patrons.

The program began with a very new composition, both in years and style. Cindy McIntee’s Double Play, written in 2010, featured clashing elements, such as frantic strings and unusual percussion, that put listeners out of their musical comfort zones and forced them to appreciate a more innovative interpretation. By contrast, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus, though also a contemporary piece, was a warm, rich, and passionate complement to McIntee’s jarring piece, with swelling dynamics and lyrical violin and cello solos.

In addition to showcasing the skill of the full ensemble, the orchestra also brought two of its members to the forefront. Principal PSO violist Randolph Kelly performed the solo in Walter Piston’s Concerto for Viola and Orchestra with extraordinary richness. On top of Kelly’s obvious skill, it was refreshing to have a viola brought to the limelight — an instrument that is often neglected between the show-stealing violin and the deep, lush cello. On oboe, Carnegie Mellon faculty member Cynthia Koledo DeAlmeida played with poise and grace. As another instrument that is not frequently featured, the oboe hovered cleanly over the orchestra’s accompaniment.

The program’s conclusion — and a favorite among audience members — was the orchestra’s interpretation of Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Britten’s piece guides new classical music listeners through the ensemble, first introducing a majestic variation of a theme by Purcell with the full orchestra and then featuring each instrumental section in turn. The PSO, however, decided to literally have young people guide the audience through the orchestra: 10- to 12-year-olds with microphones seated on stage introduced each section of the orchestra with a short description of each instrument. This take on the piece was an endearing choice on the part of the PSO and was well received by the audience.

After the concert, Carnegie Mellon students were invited to a special reception with desserts and a few words from orchestra members, including faculty member DeAlmeida. The small event gave students the chance to mingle after the concert and was a nice gesture on the part of the PSO.

As guest conductor Leonard Slatkin said on Friday night, “Tonight is show-off night” for the PSO. Carnegie Mellon Night certainly demonstrated the prowess of the PSO and the particular talents of some of its individual members. In selecting a program of exclusively contemporary music, the PSO made a daring but rewarding choice: rather than lulling its audience with the familiar comforts of favorite classical artists, the orchestra decided to test its listeners’ palates and expose them to less traditional forms.