PSO features world-renowned pianist

Featuring a world-class guest soloist, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO)’s program added another success to the list of excellent performances in its 2011–12 season last Friday night. With Juilliard-educated and world-renowned pianist Emanuel Ax featured in the program, the orchestra once again showed its ability to bring in high-profile soloists while demonstrating its own musical prowess.

The concert was held at Heinz Hall, which is currently celebrating 40 years as host to the PSO. In the lobby, young musicians greeted guests who arrived early with classical favorites like French composer Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” Meanwhile, in the concert hall, orchestra members trickled onstage and began to warm up. Once the hall had filled, celebrated violinist and guest conductor Nikolaj Znaider got the program underway.

Dynamics were key in the first piece of the program, German composer Richard Wagner’s “Prelude und Liebestod” from the opera Tristan und Isolde; the orchestra did an excellent job of bringing them to the forefront. Wagner, a German 19th-century composer best known for his operas, wrote the piece in true romantic style with exaggerated swells from loud to soft. Several exciting climaxes intensified the piece, when the orchestra built up powerful crescendos then suddenly dropped down to a quiet hum. Both the sudden and slow changes in dynamics showed off the focus and control of the musicians on stage and the orchestra’s ability to move as a single body.

The incredible dynamic range is meant to reflect the emotional turmoil of Tristan, a character from a
12th-century legend of star-crossed lovers, as he and Isolde, the wife-to-be of Tristan’s uncle, fall in love. The story, which has taken many forms in its hundreds of years of existence, is rich with guilt, revenge, love, and deceit. The orchestra did an excellent job of expressing this drama through music.

The orchestra’s impressive performance aside, Ax stole the show with his performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Concerto No. 22 for Piano and Orchestra.” In contrast to the emotional vigor in the Wagner piece, the Mozart concerto highlighted the soloist’s skill with delicate and incredibly fast finger work.

The seasoned pianist was a self-assured and engaged performer. Ax oftentimes took his eyes off the keys to carefully watch the conductor, and moved his head vigorously to the music, even when not playing. He played each series of rapid trills and scales with ease, without making a production of the obvious difficulty of the piece.

For Ax, this confidence did not translate into arrogance. After his performance, the audience cheered wildly and gave him a standing ovation, and Ax accepted the applause with a series of humble and good-natured smiles and bows. When the audience insisted, he took a seat once more on the piano bench for an encore — a sweet, romantic piece that allowed Ax to show the audience a little more versatility.

Despite its strong reception, Ax’s appearance was surprisingly brief. Aside from his encore, the three-movement Mozart concerto was the only piece that featured the pianist. Judging from the audience’s enthusiastic reception, Ax was the highlight of the evening; the orchestra could have done more to make him the centerpiece of the program.

Although they had taken a step back to accompany Ax’s performance, the orchestra once again rose to the spotlight for its performance of English composer Edward Elgar’s “Enigma Variations.” Elgar’s piece consists of 14 variations on a theme, each representing an important person in Elgar’s life. Though connected by this common underlying theme, each variation was distinct, and many were in direct contrast to one another, as the music was written to express different personalities.

Like the Wagner piece, Elgar’s variations showed a wide range of emotions and dynamics. Starting off with a tender depiction of Elgar’s wife, Alice, the piece varied from light, flurrying winds to loud, blaring brass to sweeping, emotive strings. The “Nimrod” variation, perhaps the most well known of the variations, was a particular highlight. Moving at a very slow adagio, the orchestra grew in dynamics with an intense yet extremely tender crescendo, moving seamlessly from soft to loud.

With the help of Ax, the PSO put on another excellent and well-received program for local classical music lovers. Despite Ax’s brief appearance, the program showed off both Ax as an accomplished soloist and the PSO as an orchestra that continues to impress.