Pittsburgh Symphony plays to its strengths

Standard formulas can get tired very quickly, especially in the realm of arts and entertainment. Movies that follow traditional arcs too closely can be stale and predictable. But formulas exist for a reason, and if executed well, they can be highly effective.

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra has one of those formulas — unchanging but well performed nearly every time. Last Saturday night, the orchestra presented yet another variation of its usual recipe in a program featuring acclaimed violin soloist Arabella Steinbacher and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.

Aside from Steinbacher, a special spotlight fell on guest conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, who has worked with the orchestra for 42 years and just celebrated his 80th birthday. Frühbeck de Burgos walked confidently to the podium to a round of thunderous applause.

For this concert, the orchestra presented one of its standard three-part programs: an edgier, more contemporary piece, a standout solo performance, and finally a symphonic classic that shows off the orchestra’s prowess.

This time, the program opened with the U.S. premiere of Leonardo Balada’s Symphony No. 6, Symphony of Sorrows — a dissonant, high-drama piece characterized by chirping strings, a theme building in the brass, and a dark tremor in the percussion. The piece showcased both the group and individual talent: The staccato passages in the strings were impressively synchronized, while principal cellist Anne Martindale Williams gave a mesmerizing solo. The symphony also has local flavor; Balada is a professor of composition at Carnegie Mellon.

Although the orchestra brought its own soloists to the forefront, Steinbacher was the star of the evening. Steinbacher’s bold fashion choice drew as much attention as her violin; she walked onstage in a bright fuschia gown.

Her actual performance, however, was quite understated. Steinbacher offered a muted yet fluid sound, and while her solo was quiet, the orchestra did well to avoid overpowering her.

Despite her softer tone, Steinbacher’s passion was no less for it; she was capable of a surprising amount of vigor, driving into the more technically difficult passages without hesitation. Sergei Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 1 in D major for Violin and Orchestra is a virtuoso piece and features very technically difficult passages. Steinbacher deftly alternated between choppy, halting notes and blindingly fast runs. The concerto ended on a heart-wrenchingly sweet note, with Steinbacher wringing every ounce of vibrato out of her fingers.

After Steinbacher left the stage, the orchestra launched into Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s hypnotizing Scheherazade. This piece was the exception to the orchestra’s otherwise technically impeccable performance; a few of the entrances were unintentionally staggered, and when the orchestra dropped down to a nearly inaudible pizzacato, the musicians sounded a little unsure. That said, the orchestra gave a sweeping performance overall — bewitching and halting in all the right places.

The indisputable highlight of Scheherazade was concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley’s enchanting rendition of the classic solo. As the orchestra faded out, Bendix-Balgley’s violin took over and held the audience in rapt attention, offering a beautiful vibrato and refreshingly pure tone that was surely as enchanting as any of Scheherazade’s tales.

In combination, the three distinct performances made for another successful interpretation of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra recipe. The formula may be familiar, but it has yet to cause classical music lovers to lose interest.