PSO performs moving pieces

On Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO) performed pieces by Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn, German composer Richard Strauss, and American composer Richard Danielpour.

The pieces were all conducted by Polish conductor Christoph König. Sprightly and energetic, König displays palpable enthusiasm for the music. König last conducted the PSO in 2011 and is currently the principal conductor of the Orquestra Sinfónica do Porto based in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

During Friday and Sunday’s performances, the PSO featured Danielpour’s 2011 piece Darkness in the Ancient Valley for Soprano and Orchestra, written for and sung by soprano star Hila Plitmann. She has released many recordings to critical acclaim, including a contribution to Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack for The Da Vinci Code, for which Plitmann won a Grammy.

The night started off with Haydn, one of the most prolific composers of the 18th century, known as the “Father of the Symphony.” Haydn’s Symphony No. 22 in E-flat Major, also known as The Philosopher, shines as a superb example of his work. The first movement features a steady rhythm provided by cellos and harpsichord. This procedural ticking evokes the image of a philosopher deep in thought. The piece then gallops into its exuberant second movement, stopping to take a breath at the third movement before leaping toward its fast-paced finale.

Darkness in the Ancient Valley stands in contrast to the mannered and orderly style of Haydn’s piece. The piece, which is dark, violent, and haunting, is inspired by the brutality of the current Iranian regime, especially with regard to its treatment of women. Danielpour is of Iranian descent, and the music draws influences from Persian folk melodies, Sufi rhymes, and Danielpour’s own memory of the Persian records his mother played when he was little.

Danielpour writes in the program, “It’s not an accurate, note-perfect representation of the music I heard, but I think it’s more interesting because it’s more personal. While this is clearly the music of a 21st-century American composer, it is the music of an American composer with a Middle Eastern memory.”

The piece is as vast and turbulent as the history of Iran itself. Darkness has five movements. The first, “Lamentation,” sets the stage with Middle-Eastern melodies drifting about in the air. The next movement, “Desecration,” hits like a hurricane. The music blares like an alarm clock, and at times the strings even screech a Hitchcock-esque cry. “Benediction” then presents a fragile peace before “Profanation” lays it to waste.

Plitmann slowly stepped on stage in a glittering silver dress during the last movement, “Consecration,”and delivered a beautiful performance evocative of pain and suffering. Her song, with lyrics such as “You may willfully cast me into fire/ but I am an ingot glowing for you” is taken from the translation of a Persian poem written by the mystic Rumi about a woman who chooses not to retaliate against her cruel lover. Although the part was written for her, it is still a wonder how her voice delivers such high and complex notes.

The show on Saturday, instead of Darkness, featured a special demonstration and discussion, “Behind the Notes.” In this segment, the conductor took the audience through the story and structure behind a piece of music. “Behind the Notes” would be very interesting for people who want to gain greater insights into the minds of composers when they create musical masterpieces.

After an intermission, it was Zarathustra’s time to shine. As one of Strauss’s most famous pieces, Also Sprach Zarathustra was inspired by, and shares its name with, Nietzsche’s novel. Both works address man’s existence and the trials he faces. Most know Also Sprach Zarathustra from its use in the opening of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. From those famous first chords to those last muted notes, the PSO’s rendition of the piece was intense and inspirational.

The selection of the music added greatly to the performances. There was a sense of progression through the entirety of the show. Though the three pieces were written centuries apart, they nonetheless referenced one another with common themes and motifs. The music, energy, and emotional depth combined to create nearly two hours of magic that the PSO pulled off with ease.