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Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra takes different trips with Mason Bates, Valentina Lisitsa |

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra takes different trips with Mason Bates, Valentina Lisitsa

Mark Kanny
Gilbert Francois
Pianist Valentina Lisitsa

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra offers a little pun in the title of its first subscription concerts of the season: “Two Trips.”

The program is filled with popular elements, starting with the most popular of past composers of the year, Mason Bates, becoming the first to return for a second year. His piece is a recollection of a summer trip to North Carolina.

The concert will conclude with Hector Berlioz’ “Symphonie fantastique,” which the composer said portrays a lovesick young musician’s drug-stimulated feverish visions.

Music director Manfred Honeck will conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony in the season’s first set of BNY Mellon Grand Classics concerts Sept. 19 to 21 at Heinz Hall, Downtown.

The program includes Bates’ “Rusty Air in Carolina,” and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini” with Valentina Lisitsa as piano soloist.

The concert will begin with a short piece dedicated to the memory of Lorin Maazel, a former member of the orchestra and its music director from 1988 to 1996, who died July 13.

Lisitsa is returning for her third appearance with the orchestra at Heinz Hall. She made a spectacular debut in April 2010, playing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with Honeck and the orchestra.

The Ukrainian pianist’s career has followed an unusual course. She came to fame on the Internet.

“I knocked on all those doors (in the business) and got nowhere, so I made an opening in the wall,” says Lisitsa, who has become very popular on YouTube. “I was, frankly, never there for promotion. I was looking for my audience.”

Now, Lisitsa plays so many concerts, she needs to rent a small place in Paris and won’t be back home in North Carolina until December. Her recordings for Decca include all of Rachmaninoff’s music for piano and orchestra.

The “Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini,” she says came so late in life for Rachmaninoff, “it was kind of an encore in compositional life. Along with the Symphonic Dances, it is a second life, rather than a continuation of the same life.”

Honeck conducted the Berlioz symphony two years ago with the Czech Philharmonic. It was composed in 1829.

In the best-known of the program notes Berlioz wrote for the “Symphonie fantastique,” from 1855, the composer describes the piece: “A young musician of morbid sensitivity and ardent imagination poisons himself with opium in a moment of despair caused by frustrated love. The dose of narcotic, while too weak to cause his death, plunges him into a heavy sleep, accompanied by the strangest of visions in which his experiences, feelings and memories are translated in his feverish brain into musical thoughts and images. His beloved becomes for him a melody and like an idee fixe which he meets and hears everywhere.”

“I really like the programmatic idea,” Honeck says. “To me, it’s like an opera, and I love opera. It shows how great Berlioz was, not only with the instrumentation but also with his (musical) thinking.

“It also shows a courage to bring out something completely new, that didn’t happen in Vienna and in the great symphonies of Schumann and Schubert. His brash radicalism at this stage and time is fantastic.”

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or [email protected].

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