PSO gets creative with stunning Mozart rendition

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra played Romantic period favorites at Heinz Hall last Friday. (credit: File Photo) The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra played Romantic period favorites at Heinz Hall last Friday. (credit: File Photo)

It’s fair to say that people have come to expect excellence from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO). Between the orchestra’s international renown and its ability to consistently snatch world-class guest soloists for its performances, impressive concerts have become the norm for this musical gem in the heart of the Cultural District. But the PSO’s performance on Friday night featured the typically extraordinary orchestra at its very best.

While the PSO has no trouble bringing high-profile guest soloists to Heinz Hall, this time the orchestra chose to showcase its own talent: Concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley took the stage as solo violinist with a sweetly passionate rendition of Beethoven’s Concerto in D minor for Violin and Orchestra.

With its rapid, sweeping pace and almost unintelligibly fast successions of notes, the concerto is clearly not designed for the technically faint at heart. Bendix-Balgley not only gave an impeccable performance but supplemented it with his clean, pure stylistic voice.

After a warm introduction by the orchestra, Bendix-Balgley made his entrance with a series of sweet, climbing octaves. The high ethereal notes tumbled off the strings; the soloist’s fingers barely seemed to graze the fingerboard as they moved. Bendix-Balgley displayed exceptional grace and precision, even for a musician of his caliber.

As well as a sensitive and accomplished soloist, Bendix-Balgley proved himself a capable and daring composer. He wrote original cadenzas (guitar solos of sorts for the classical musician) and played them passionately — maintaining the sweet, sweeping melody of the piece while incorporating his own musical signature. Bendix-Balgley’s efforts earned him a wild standing ovation at the end of his performance.

While it seemed unbelievable that the second part of the program could live up to the first, the orchestra’s performance of a reworked Mozart Requiem was equally impressive.

The PSO’s rendition of the Requiem was all about ambience. Before the performance even began, the lights dimmed, and to the soft, chilling sound of a death bell, the audience read about the piece’s background on screens at the front of both sides of the hall.

Even when the musicians raised their instruments, and the members of the accompanying Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh rose from their seats, the Requiem was not played straight through. Interspersed between movements were other death-related works by Mozart and a few haunting Gregorian chants that offset the majestic piece with a quiet, chilling hum. The performance also featured readings by award-winning actor F. Murray Abraham, famed for his role as Salieri in Amadeus.

This collection of works, though somewhat eclectic, had the beautiful effect of drawing new meaning from centuries-old classics. The program emphasized how death, while a common and ubiquitous occurrence in Mozart’s time, is today a source of fear and uncertainty. This context lent a grave air to the performance and allowed the audience to absorb familiar music with a new perspective.

This kind of creative programming — reworking a familiar classic in an engaging and thought-provoking way — is something that the orchestra frequently pulls off with huge success. With this combination of creativity, a talented soloist, and a fantastic orchestra, the evening was among the best in the PSO’s recent history.