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Conductor Manfred Honeck will lead Fifth Symphony for the first time in Heinz Hall |

Conductor Manfred Honeck will lead Fifth Symphony for the first time in Heinz Hall

Mark Kanny
Patrick Allen
Pianist Benjamin Grosvenor
Felix Broede
Conductor and music director Manfred Honeck

Historical signs are spread widely throughout Western Pennsylvania, and an improbable one in downtown Pittsburgh is part of the background of the music which will cap off the symphony’s next set of concerts.

America’s Independence Hall is in Philadelphia, but Czechoslovakia’s independence was proclaimed in Pittsburgh, not Europe. On May 31, 1918, Czech and Slovak representatives signed the Pittsburgh Declaration (or Pact) in the Loyal Order of Moose Hall, announcing their intention to form their own country, free of the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Less than a decade later Czech composer Leos Janacek expressed his country’s resurgent vitality in his Sinfonietta, an especially colorful orchestral piece.

Manfred Honeck will conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at BNY Mellon Grand Classics concerts on March 2 and 4 at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Hall. The program is Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with soloist Benjamin Grosvenor, and Janacek’s Sinfonietta.

The Sinfonietta was written “a very creative time in Czechoslovakia,” says the symphony’s music director. Early in his tenure he noticed the historical marker near Heinz Hall about Czechoslovakia’s founding, which was put up after Moose Hall was torn down in 1984.

“Of course, Dvorak and Smetana had written Czech music before, but now people felt their freedom,” he emphasizes. “It’s not surprising to me that the Sinfonietta opens with a heroic and nationalistic movement. In the original version Janacek had titles for each movement: “Fanfares,” “The Castle,” “The Queen’s Monastery,” “The Street,” and “Town Hall.”

Honeck admires Janacek’s concept for the piece’s the orchestration – opening with brass and timpani, followed by movements carried by woodwinds, by strings, by strings and trumpet. Only the last movement employs the full forces all at once.

The conductor considers Janacek’s Sinfonietta so special he decided it should be the concert’s culmination. Prokofiev’s big Fifth Symphony thus will open the evening. It was written in 1944 when Allied victory over the Nazis was in sight. It is one of the composer’s most popular works.

“In the Fifth Symphony I wanted to sing the praises of the free and happy man – his strength, his generosity and the freedom of his soul,” wrote the composer.

Honeck often conducted Prokofiev’s Fifth when he was young, “and inexperienced,” and will lead it for the first time at Heinz Hall

“The Scherzo, which is funny, and the last movement have enormous optimism,” the conductor says, “which is what I think he was addressing at the end of the war. But we also know from (fellow composer Dmitri) Shostakovich’s experience that there was enormous pressure on artists in the Soviet Union. This music also has tragic personal elements and, in the first and third movements especially, conveys the depth of the people.”

The Pittsburgh Symphony will continue this season’s survey of Beethoven’s five piano concerti between the Prokofiev and Janacek. Soloist Benjamin Grosvenor began his professional career at 11 after winning an important English competition, and now records for Decca and performs with major orchestras around the world. He’ll make his local debut with one of Beethoven’s youthful masterpieces.

Grosvenor says that while the Second Piano Concerto may be the least familiar of Beethoven’s five, it is a beautiful work.

“The first movement is exuberant and energetic and the second has disarming tenderness,” he says. “The Rondo theme of the last movement is perhaps the most ‘catchy’ tune of the work. Its syncopations giving an infectious quality to this movement – which is robust, joyful and often teasingly witty.”

Mark Kanny is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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