Amidst program changes, Pittsburgh Symphony shines in Mozart and Schubert

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Manfred Honeck, conductor
Lorna McGhee, flute
Heinz Hall
Pittsburgh, PA
November 5, 2017

Mozart: Overture to Idomeneo, K366
Mozart: Flute Concerto No. 1 in G major, K313/285c
Schubert: Symphony No. 9 in C major, D944, Great

Last weekend’s program at the Pittsburgh Symphony underwent several iterations before taking its final form, and it was a testament to strength of the musicians on stage how polished the end result came across nonetheless. Christoph von Dohnányi was originally scheduled to conduct, but was forced to withdraw all of his autumn engagements (which were also to include appearances with the orchestras of New York, Boston, Cleveland, and Chicago) while still recovering from a fracture suffered earlier this year. Dohnányi’s program was slated to open with Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, but when PSO music director Manfred Honeck stepped in, the Bartók was dropped in favor of Mozart’s Concerto for Flute, Harp, and Orchestra. All was well until harpist Gretchen Van Hoesen had the misfortune of a hand injury, and the program was altered one last time to a Mozart overture and flute concerto.

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Manfred Honeck, photo credit Felix Broede

The overture to the opera seria Idomeneo boasted a stately, regal opening, but soon took some unexpected chromatic excursions. This brief but rousing selection was given with a grandeur and a high-energy workout by the PSO. The Flute Concerto No. 1 in G major brought PSO principal Lorna McGhee into the spotlight, a gifted soloist whom I have previously enjoyed hearing serve on occasion as guest principal at the Chicago Symphony (see here and here).

The opening Allegro maestoso was of pearly balance and clearly delineated proportions, while McGhee’s limber flute passages were a graceful addition, always with an elegant attention to phrasing, and the cadenza showed her at her acrobatic best. The central slow movement featured the unusual inclusion of a pair of orchestral flutes, and McGhee responded to her colleagues in kind with a gorgeous, long-breathed melody. As for the concluding rondo, playfulness and joviality abounded in Mozart at his sunniest, leading up to its unassuming tongue-in-cheek ending.

The one constant of the program otherwise in the aforementioned flux was Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C major, to make for a weighty second half. Now in his tenth season as music director, Honeck has cultivated a remarkable rapport with the musicians, and this was quite apparent in the way the moving parts of this daunting work came together so seamlessly. A spacious opening in the trombones served as a gentle call to attention, and a burst of energy inaugurated the movement proper. Honeck took matters at a brisk pace (with total performance time only just passing the 50-minute mark), and opted for a tauter structure in jettisoning the repeat of the exposition. The proportionally brief development was highlighted by fine solos from the principal winds, and in due course the trombones returned to herald a triumphant coda.

A sumptuous song without words made for a memorable slow movement, notable for the intensely lyrical solos in the oboe. Music of more urgency offered some contrast and initiated a gorgeous, flowing theme chiefly in the strings with guest concertmaster Alexi Kenney at the helm. There was breathless vigor in the scherzo, countered by a more songful trio, and the finale was yet another high-octane affair – while it began perhaps a notch too loud, this zealousness did little to detract from the symphony’s bold conclusion.

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Lorna McGhee, photo credit Takuyuki Saito
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Gardner and Denk deliver inspired performances at Mostly Mozart

Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra
Edward Gardner, conductor
Jeremy Denk, piano
David Geffen Hall
Lincoln Center
New York, NY
July 29, 2017

Mozart: Masonic Funeral Music, K477
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58
 Encore:
 Mozart: Piano Sonata No. 16 in C major, K545 – 2. Andante
Schubert: Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, D485

A New York summer tradition for over half a century, the Mostly Mozart Festival is a paean to not only its eponymous composer, but as the name suggests, those who bore his influence.  Saturday night’s program embodied just that with music of Mozart prefacing works by Beethoven and Schubert that exuded a quintessentially Mozartean classicism.  At the podium was the probing English conductor Edward Gardner who opened the evening with a user-friendly introduction, explicating the connections between the selections on the program.

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Edward Gardner, photo credit Benjamin Ealovega
The only work from Mozart’s pen on the printed program was a certified rarity, namely the Masonic Funeral Music.  In his remarks, Gardner noted the enlarged wind section – inclusive of basset horns and the contrabassoon – and humorously commented that this orchestration was perhaps well-suited to Tony Bennett.  He then demonstrated the work’s striking interpolation of a Gregorian chant, aptly describing it as of an “astounding resonance.”  Gardner’s reading was deftly balanced, exuding a funereal pathos that anticipated the Masonic passages in The Magic Flute, and made a case for more frequent hearings of this finely-crafted gem.

The heart of the program was Beethoven’s genial Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, which brought forth the charismatic soloist Jeremy Denk.  Denk’s unaccompanied entrance was of a dreamy serenity, and bell-like clarity of tone.  His fingers spun a wondrously flowing melodic line, and not at the expense of plumbing the intensity of the work’s more dramatic moments.  Denk and Gardner were a somewhat unusual coupling; while the pianist was patently idiosyncratic, often looking out into the audience with closed eyes, and playing with a remarkable (perhaps too remarkable) flexibility, Gardner was much more straight-laced.  In spite of the incongruity of their approaches, their results were largely inspired, and Gardner’s sensitive accompaniment was adroitly balanced with the piano.

Denk began the first movement’s cadenza unassumingly, only to soon fill the depths of the Geffen Hall with resound.  Agitated strings opened the Andante con moto, in due course calmed by the beauty of Denk’s chordal passages.  The jocular concluding rondo was elegant yet down to earth, pearly and effervescent even through the minor key episodes.  Denk obliged the enthusiastic audience with an encore by – you guessed it – Mozart, the slow movement from the Piano Sonata in C major, K545, familiar to any young piano student.  Under Denk’s hands, this was a study in poise and refinement.

While Schubert looked ahead to Romanticism in his tempestuous Fourth Symphony, the Fifth was quite to the contrary: a glance backwards towards his classical antecedents.  The Festival Orchestra delivered the opening movement with a blended and homogeneous sound, opting for the repeat of the graceful exposition, and Gardner guided orchestra and audience alike through development’s exploration of distant keys with aplomb.  Gorgeous tones seemed to pour from Gardner’s baton in the slow movement, highlighted by an especially fine flute solo from Jasmine Choi, who that evening treated concertgoers to a pre-concert recital with pianist Roman Rabinovich.  A bit more fire was introduced in the minuet, though not without a certain joviality.  The finale was taken at a brisk pace, a beaming Haydnesque wit tempered by Mozartean drama, a fitting way to close Schubert’s lovely tribute to his predecessors.

Ax shows his lyrical gift in Schubert and Chopin

Emanuel Ax, piano
Mary B. Galvin Recital Hall
Evanston, IL
May 3, 2017

Schubert: Four Impromptus, D935
Chopin: Impromptu in A-flat major, Op. 29
Chopin: Impromptu in F-sharp major, Op. 36
Chopin: Impromptu in G-flat major, Op. 51
Chopin: Fantaisie-Impromptu in C-sharp minor, Op. 66
Samuel Adams: Impromptu No. 2, “After Schubert”
Chopin: Piano Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 58

Encores:
Chopin: Nocturne in F-sharp major, Op. 15 No. 2
Chopin: Waltz in A-flat major, Op. 34 No. 1

Awarded biennially since 2006, Northwestern’s Jean Gimbel Lane Prize in Piano Performance now claims a veritable who’s who of the piano amongst its laureates.  Each recipient spends time in residency on campus, working with music students and presenting a public recital, and 2016 winner Emanuel Ax closed this season’s Skyline Piano Artist Series Wednesday evening.  Ax presented one of his characteristically thoughtful programs, exploring the impromptu in sterling examples by Schubert and Chopin along with a new addition to the genre by Samuel Adams, rounded off by Chopin’s incomparable B minor piano sonata.

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Emanuel Ax at the Galvin Recital Hall, all photos credit Todd Rosenberg
The evening opened with Schubert’s posthumously published set of Four Impromptus, D935 – and piano devotees will note that fellow Lane Prize winner Murray Perahia can be heard in the same work this Sunday at Symphony Center.  An arresting opening began the set, unsettling but calmed in due course by the legato thirds under Ax’s silken tone.  The sudden shifts to the minor gave the piece an unpredictable, mercurial quality, and Ax’s conception was spacious and improvisatory.  The second impromptu was characterized by an intensely lyrical chordal melody complemented by gracefully flowing interludes.  The theme of the B flat impromptu was of a charming refinement, but I felt Ax could have aspired to greater contrast in the ensuing set of five variations, even if the composer provided only one in the minor. While Ax’s sound was exquisite, it felt this was achieved through an unnecessarily cautious approach, and this was much the case in the final impromptu as well – while its folk-like, quasi-Hungarian melody certainly had fire, one still wanted a bit more heft.

Robert Schumann famously described Schubert’s D935 impromptus as a coherent if veiled sonata; Chopin’s four examples of the genre, however, are quite independent of one another, bearing little more in common than the rather vague title.  Nonetheless, Ax presented them as a suite, an interesting approach insofar as it juxtaposed works from various points in the composer’s life.  The Impromptu No. 1 in A flat major was highlighted by its songful middle section, and under Ax’s guidance the circuitous, labyrinthine coda felt entirely purposeful.  In the following work, the deeply felt music yearned and grew to great passions.  While it may be the least played of the Chopin impromptus, Ax made a strong case for the Impromptu No. 3 in G flat major in its arching, appealing melody.  Despite its late opus number owing to posthumous publication, the familiar Fantaisie-Impromptu is the earliest of the four, and Ax gave it an energetic workout with impressive prestidigitation.

The second half opened with a 2016 work of Samuel Adams which Ax himself commissioned, and the attention to Adams’ work is certainly topical as he currently serves as one of the two Mead Composers in Residence at the Chicago Symphony.  In concert with the theme of the first half, the work in question was the second of a set of three impromptus, this selection subtitled “After Schubert”.  As a whole the three are intended to be inserted between each of the D935 impromptus, drawing comparison to Brett Dean’s Hommage á Brahms, which Ax presented in a 2014 recital at Symphony Center, superimposed within Brahms’ Op. 119.  While it certainly would be interesting to hear the Adams in that fashion, No. 2 – a substantial piece, surpassing the 10 minute mark – functioned well independently (although I thought it would have been more logical to program it in between the Schubert and Chopin, and that way it would literally have been “after Schubert”).

Opening with quasi-Schubertian melodic fragments over a rippling accompaniment, it was as if one was experiencing distant, refracted memories of the Schubert impromptus, along with a perhaps more obvious invocation of the elder composer’s final B flat major piano sonata.  Cast in Schubert’s preferred ternary form, the middle section fared somewhat repetitive, but the brief return of the A section rounded off what was generally a very attractive piece.

Departing impromptu territory, Ax concluded the program with Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor, and it was here he was at his finest.  The first movement was grand yet tautly structured, while the fleeting, quicksilver scherzo put the pianist’s dexterous fingers on full display.  The heart of the work is in the slow movement; its declamatory opening soon melted away into a divinely gorgeous nocturne.  Though filled with bravura runs and effects, the melody was never lost in the busyness of the finale which closed the work with enormous passion and drama.

The warm, enthusiastic reception brought Ax back to the keyboard for two encores, both by Chopin: an elegant account of the Nocturne in F sharp major, along with the Waltz in A flat major, stylish and buoyant.

Emanuel Ax

Osorio makes an impressive entry in Northwestern’s Skyline Piano Artist Series

Jorge Federico Osorio, piano
Mary B. Galvin Recital Hall
Evanston, IL
April 1, 2017

Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 27 No. 2, Moonlight
Schubert: Piano Sonata No. 20 in A major, D959
Debussy: Préludes, Book II

Encores:
Granados: Andaluza, No. 5 from Danzas españolas, Op. 37
Granados: Orientale, No. 2 from Danzas españolas, Op. 37

For piano enthusiasts, the Skyline Piano Artist Series at Northwestern, now in its second season, has become an essential complement to the Sunday afternoon recitals downtown at Symphony Center.  The venue of choice for the series is the recently built Galvin Recital Hall, one of Chicagoland’s most striking concert spaces, an intimate setting boasting stellar acoustics and stunning views of Lake Michigan and the distant Chicago skyline.  Chicago-based pianist Jorge Federico Osorio made a welcome appearance and offered a weighty program of Beethoven, Schubert, and Debussy.

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Jorge Federico Osorio, photo credit Todd Rosenberg
Beethoven’s ever-popular Moonlight sonata opened, the lights of the city skyline reflecting on the water making a fitting visual backdrop, though it should be remembered that the work’s ubiquitous sobriquet didn’t originate with the composer.  Under Osorio’s hands, the first movement was given a luminous, rippling effect, and treated almost like a nocturne.  The buoyant second movement served as a light interlude to the stormy finale.  In this impressive outpouring, Osorio mined the emotional depths of Beethoven’s explosive psyche; a few minor technical mishaps did little to detract from the drama.

In change from the order on the printed program, Osorio proceeded with Schubert’s late, great A major piano sonata (D959) to juxtapose the two epochal Viennese sonatas, both of which redefined the genre.  The grandeur of the capacious opening movement had an ineffable Schubertian grace, and Osorio opted for the lengthy repeat of the exposition.  A thoughtful sense of narrative guided the pianist in the labyrinths of the development, and its introspection was maintained through the mysterious, arpeggiated coda.  The Andantino had the lyricism of a song without words, and built to menacing outbursts in the strikingly contrasting middle section, while the scherzo danced in its mercurial drama, complemented by an especially lovely trio.  In the finale, the main theme’s blissfulness belied a dramatic potential which Osorio was keen to explore, and the movement harked back to the sonata’s declamatory opening in its concluding moments.

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The dramatic setting of the Galvin Recital Hall
The second half was devoted to Debussy’s substantial second book of twelve preludes, a panoply of pianistic watercolors requiring a formidable technique.  Brouillards was given a limpid reading, the coloristic washes of sound suggesting the titular mists.  Contrast was soon to be had in the barren Feuilles mortes, and Osorio struck an ideal balance between the fiery and the sensuous in the faux-Spanish La puerta del Vino.  The quicksilver Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses was fantasy-like, and the resonant bells of a distant cathedral were suggested in Bruyères.  Osorio imbued Général Lavine – eccentric with its requisite eccentricity, one of Debussy’s rambunctious appropriations of the American cakewalk and ragtime music (and incidentally, this concert occurred on the 100th anniversary of Scott Joplin’s death).

The moonlight shimmered in La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune, and how apt it was given this prelude and the Beethoven sonata that concertgoers would leave the hall to the sight of a beautiful crescent moon.  Ondine was perhaps the most impressionistic of the set in its fantastical evocation of the titular water sprite.  The bombast of Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C. was countered by Canope, which for Osorio was a study in the beauty and purity of tone.  While Les tierces alternées sounds like the name of a dry Czerny etude, here the alternating thirds were used for solid musical purposes rather than mere technique.  The Préludes concluded with the unrelenting technical tour de force that is Feux d’artifice, and Osorio delivered it with panache and élan.

No Osorio recital would be complete without music from the Spanish speaking world, and the two Granados encores filled the gap.  Both were extracted from the 12 Danzas españolas: a jaunty “Andaluza”, fittingly paired with the touchingly lyrical “Orientale”.