Pittsburgh Symphony presents CMU Night

Recently returned from its tour across Europe, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra played Mozart and Barber as part of Saturday's CMU Night at the PSO. (credit: Courtesy of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra) Recently returned from its tour across Europe, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra played Mozart and Barber as part of Saturday's CMU Night at the PSO. (credit: Courtesy of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra)

After the sounds of footsteps upon a wood stage, notes escaping from tweaking instruments, and muddled conversations among the audience, there is silence, then a wave of music. This is the magic of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO).

This weekend, the PSO continued its 2013-14 season with a string of performances. Hardly a month after its return from a European tour, the PSO is already off to a strong start, opening with a gala in late September featuring Yo-Yo Ma. Although Saturday night’s performance did not feature musicians quite as high profile as Ma, it was nonetheless an enjoyable evening of wonderful music.

Once again, conductor Manfred Honeck was at the reins. The Austrian-born music director, who has been with the orchestra since its 2008-09 season, is very expressive and bold in his conducting, and Saturday night’s performance was no exception.

The first piece of the night was Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. A somber song full of pathos, Adagio functions as one organic, drawn-out breath. There is a very subtle tension and catharsis throughout the piece that the string section captured very well. While Adagio, as a well known piece, was arguably the main attraction of the night, the austere and reflective piece was simply blown out of the water by its successors.

Immediately after Adagio was the dynamic Symphonic Suite from Jenufa, as arranged by Honeck and Czech composer Tomas Ille. Jenufa is a Czech opera composed by Leoš Janácek that tells a twisted tale spun from two real-life incidents that occurred in the former state of Czechoslovakia in the 1880s.

Set in a remote Czech village, Jenufa is the story of a young woman, the titular Jenufa, who is loved by two half-brothers but only returns the affections of one of them, Steva. In a jealous rage, the other brother, Laca, disfigures Jenufa with a knife, but is immediately remorseful. Months later, Steva leaves Jenufa because of her disfigurement, despite the fact that Jenufa has just given birth to a child. At this point, Laca still wishes to marry Jenufa, but worries that he would also have to take care of Steva’s child. Upon hearing this, Jenufa’s stepmother lies to Laca and tells him that the baby has died, and then later drowns the infant herself.

The music does an excellent job of capturing the drama and emotion of the opera; it could tell the story very well without any singers, actors, or dancers. A xylophone motif weaves in and out between each of the different medleys, almost like an alarm bell that wakes you up from one dream and into another. The music is highly temperamental, moving from a soft, sweet coo to a dark, stormy roar. There are moments of ubiquitous unease, moments where drums and brass come together in a solemn death march, and moments of a sincere and profound rebirth, much like the coming of spring after a long winter. The arrangement brings out the pure human emotion within the opera.

Mozart’s Concerto No. 21 in C major for Piano and Orchestra, the next piece of the night, featured Yulianna Avdeeva as the piano soloist. Avdeeva, who won first place in the International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition in 2010, is known for her formidable technique and intense intellectual rigor. Concerto No. 21 may not be the immediate thing that springs to mind when one thinks of “intense intellectual rigor,” but nonetheless Avdeeva did a wonderful job capturing the tone of the piece, giving an elegant performance. As is typical of Mozart, the piece combines the stateliness and politesse of baroque music, a hint of the budding Romanticism, and Mozart’s own ingenious, playful flair.

The first movement of Concert No. 21 brings to mind images of an evening ball, with guests dancing and gossiping, prominently featuring the enchanting chime of the piano. It then moves on to its famous Adante movement, a romantic and sensual kind of music that is easy to become lost in before the final movement, an energetic Rondo.

The final piece of the night, Antonín Dvorák’s Symphony No. 8 in G major was a strong finish to the night. Dvorák, another Czech composer, was a great lover of the countryside, a fierce passion that greatly carries over to his music. Symphony No. 8 feels like a breath of fresh air on a bright summer day as you travel down a country road, gazing at the wide open plains in the distance. Plenty of recurring motifs and melodies swirl around in the wind, but the piece is at its best when at its most forceful and bombastic. The ending — the last few notes of the night — was strong, vibrant, and defiant.

Though arrangement-wise, the combination of the slow, solemn Adagio felt at odds with the other more vibrant, forceful pieces, the PSO delivered the kind of wonderful performance that has come to be expected of the orchestra.