Saturday, January 24, 2009

Pittsburgh Symphony - January 23, 2009

Greetings! After taking some time off from concert-going to save up some Christmas money (and avoid cheesy holiday concerts!), I am resuming my quest to hear lots and lots and lots of good music. :)

Last night's program was:
Conductor - Andres Cardenes

Barber - Symphony No. 1 (In One Movement)
Gershwin (arr. Ferde Grofe) - Rhapsody in Blue with Gabriela Montero, piano
Mendelssohn - Symphony No. 5 in D major, Op. 107, "Reformation"

First off, it was interesting to see Cardenes, usually the concertmaster, in the role of conductor. Though his conducting seemed a little academic at times, it was for the most part well-done. The most striking thing to me, though, was that he clearly had such an awareness of the score (a necessity for a conductor, obviously, but stick with me here) - which led me to wonder just how good an orchestra could be if everyone - not just the concertmaster - had that depth of knowledge about a piece. I mean, sure, good musicians know the score and are familiar with a piece . . . but what if everybody knew it well enough that they could get up and conduct it if they had to. Would that affect the sound of the ensemble, do you think? Would it affect the way they played? It would surely affect the way that I listen to a piece to know it that well. I've got no answers, just musings.

The Barber symphony was brand new for me, and I think I would have benefited from some pre-concert listening on this one. I wasn't really into it at the beginning, but in the middle of the Andante tranquillo section I suddenly noticed that I was completely sucked in, and stayed that way until the end. I think I was just unprepared for the beginning. I have a friend who always finds recordings of the pieces he will hear at a concert, so that he'll know the piece before he gets there. I, on the other hand, like to be surprised. :) In this case, however, I think I would have enjoyed the first half of the piece more if I had been familiar with it already. The themes and structure just went by too fast to really appreciate on a first listening.

The Gershwin was fun, of course. Ms. Montero had a relaxed presence and the orchestra did a great job - esp. the clarinets and brass, of course. :) I read in the program that the work was originally for piano and big band - news to me! I was curious about the wind seating, though - there was only one flute and one oboe instead of the usual pairs, while the rest of the sections were full. Neither have particularly exposed passages in the piece, so I didn't really hear a difference, but it was odd nonetheless.

Now, THIS is the part that made the night:
Ms. Montero has developed a somewhat unique reputation as an improviser. As part of her performances, she likes to take suggestions of themes from the audience and improvise upon them. So she came out for an encore, and said she would do an improvisation for us tonight. She asked for audience suggestions of themes, and a handful of people shouted out ideas.

Not so fast, though - there was a catch. She quiets the audience down, and says no - you have to SING the melody.

People laugh shyly, and she so she mentions that maybe there's something unique to Pittsburgh that somebody would sing. At which point some idiot behind me starts chanting "Here we go Steelers, here we go! *clap, clap*" You know the tune, right? People laugh and cheer, and I expect that most of the symphony hall will roll their eyes and we'll get on with the real suggestions . . .

Not in Pittsburgh!

In a few seconds most of the hall is singing the chant, and Ms. Montero is looking at us with a sort of amused disbelief. She walks back to the piano, stares at it for a second. Plays the melody once. Stops. Looks at the audience, who laugh and cheer her on. She plays it again once. Then once again, with a chord underneath. Looks at the audience again, who cheer like crazy. She sits in silence for a few minutes, plays the little motive a few more times, then starts to play . . .

At first it seemed like something you'd hear from the electric organ at the ball park . . . but then it morphed through style after style - Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Jazz, Latin - she must have played for a good five minutes or more. All manner of accompaniments and developments and countermelodies and harmonic changes, she would play melodies with the motive thrown in at the beginning, middle, or end - it was nothing short of amazing to hear her create that much music from such a stupid little thing. I mean, I know a lot of large works start as small motives, but to hear it unfold like that was an experience I can't adequately describe. In the beginning of the improvisation, the audience would laugh and clap a little when the motive would get thrown in, but by the end the music was so developed and we were so caught up in her playing that it hardly seemed to matter where it came from.

Only. In. Pittsburgh.

After intermission, we got another treat: Ms. Montero had just played a quartet at President Obama's inauguration with Itzhak Perlman, Yo-yo Ma, and Anthony McGill of the Metropoliton Opera Orchestra on clarinet. Last night she performed the piece again with members of the PSO. It is a work by John Williams called "Air and Simple Gifts" that elaborates on the well-known folk tune. It was a lovely piece, and well-done (especially considering that the players had only recieved the score the day before!), but most memorable were Ms. Montero's comments about playing at the inauguration.

She said that it had been one of the highlights of her life, that having the president so close was thrilling, but then she said this:
"I have never played in temperatures like that before, and I hope to God I never will again! It was torture! I mean, playing the piano can sometimes be torture . . . but this was horrible!"

She's too cute, it was endearing.

Then we were on to the Mendelssohn, which was also brand new to me. It . . . well, didn't sound like Mendelssohn! He was clearly channeling his inner Bach for this church-inspired symphony. It was absolutely gorgeous, though - the soul and texture of Bach but somehow with the lightness and spirit of Mendelssohn . . . really a unique work, and I'm glad I got to hear it.

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