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Pittsburgh symphony an artistic success

Analise Lipari | Tuesday, December 6, 2005

The sound of strings, woodwinds and brass warming up to a familiar B flat tickled the atmosphere of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s performance last Thursday night at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center. The general mood of anticipation was only heightened by noting the selection of pieces that the prestigious ensemble was to present that evening. And with Rachmaninoff, Strauss and Sibelius played to near perfection, it was an evening of masterful artistry.

With guest conductor Hans Graf at the helm, the PSO was truly remarkable. Their level of professionalism, talent and style was of the highest caliber, and witnessing their concert was undoubtedly one of the most exceptional joys of the semester.

The first piece performed, Richard Strauss’ tone poem, “Don Juan,” was a bright and energetic opening for the concert. The piece, first performed in 1889, uses a featured selection of instruments to tell the familiar tale of Don Juan through music. Flute, bassoon, harp and timpani are among the instruments chosen, and the piece’s varying pace and melodies heighten those choices.

From its vibrant opening to the more measured middle sections, the tone poem’s gorgeous melodies carried the audience to the Seville of centuries past. The interesting contrast between smooth, lilting string harmonies and bright, bombastic brass and timpani led the audience to feel both the power and elegance of the music. Its final crescendo was the height of musical force and energy.

The second piece, Sibelius’ violin concerto in D minor, featured celebrated violinist Sarah Chang. Chang, a known prodigy whose credits include performing with the New York Philharmonic at eight years old, was, in a word, a wonder. Her level of skill was astronomical for the average concertgoer to witness, and her handling of the intricacies of Sibelius’ orchestrations was outstanding.

The concert itself was unique in its accenting of the violin’s solo moments with a subtle depth of complementary orchestration. The accompanying instruments provided a strong background and partnership for Chang’s violin, and throughout the concert’s three major themes, that balance is heard with distinction.

The final piece performed was Rachmaninoff’s “Symphony No. 2 in E minor.” The suggested performance time of 50 minutes may have seemed daunting before it began, but at the closing of the fourth and final movement, it felt as though the complex, graceful and unique melodies could have continued easily until morning.

The first movement, with its strings-heavy opening, used the mournful tones of the oboe to create an ebb and flow of melody. The mood rose and fell, culminating with a surge of thunderous brass and violin.

The subsequent movements each had a distinct personality, so to speak. The second, with a more dramatic feel, also created a balance between a feel of threatening urgency and a sensation of rising joy in its choice of notes. The third is sweeping and romantic, and the fourth, an Italian “tarantella,” closes the symphony on a triumphant note of stunning beauty.

“The several elements … produce the rich and sonorous tapestry appropriate for the life-affirming conclusion of this grand and stirring Symphony,” the program stated.

The joy of having such talented and celebrated performers, who are able to come to the Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s communities, is a rare and lovely one.