Just as clothing can enhance a person’s appearance, so too does brilliant orchestration enable a great orchestra to sound its most impressive.
The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra will follow last weekend’s repertoire of spiritual music with a program of orchestral blockbusters. Between imposing full sonorities and perfectly framed solos, blockbusters showcase the greatness of the full orchestra in a special way.
Yan Pascal Tortelier will conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concerts Dec. 7 and 9 at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Hall. The program is Hector Berlioz’ “The Roman Carnival” Overture, Erich Korngold’s Violin Concerto with Simone Lamsma as soloist and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances.
The Berlioz overture features a beautifully poised melody introduced by English horn in the slow introduction before switching to its very animated carnival music. This piece is a perfect example of the early and mid-19th century composer’s revolutionary approach to orchestration, as is his popular “Symphonie fantastique.”
The critically acclaimed young Dutch violinist Simone Lamsma will be the soloist in Korngold’s Violin Concerto, which was written for legendary violinist Jascha Heifetz. Korngold was a child genius in his native Vienna, but left after the rise of the Nazis and prospered mightily in writing film scores in Hollywood. He returned to concert hall music after the war, writing a symphony, string quartet and this concerto, which has become popular in recent decades. It is no stranger to Heinz Hall, where Itzhak Perlman recorded it with Andre Previn and the Pittsburgh Symphony for EMI Classics.
The big piece on the program is the Rachmaninoff Symphony Dances, written in 1940. Although it was the last piece the Russian composer completed, it doesn’t sound valedictory. It is full of vitality and brilliantly scored to boot.
Rachmaninoff hoped his “Symphonic Dances” would be the basis for a ballet by his friend, the choreographer Michel Fokine, but he died 8 months after the premiere. The composer would die a year later.
“There is an obvious, strong and irresistible sense of rhythm that comes through the music,” Tortelier says. The conductor then sang a passage in the third and final music and said he feels it should have the fire of flamenco music.
The first movement has an incredible “pulse” Tortelier says, which he contrasts with rhythmic patterns, and is heard right at the start. He also emphasizes the unusual tempo indication, “Non Allegro,” which means not fast.
Tortelier has often conducted Russian music in Pittsburgh and has long said melody is the great gift of Russian music. One example is the saxophone solo in the first movement. The second movement, a sadly nostalgic waltz, is an even more impressive example. Tortelier points out that the main melody is unusually long and runs non-stop for 67 measures.
Rachmaninoff, like Korngold, was an ex-patriot composer. He never returned to his native Russia after the Communist Revolution at the end of World War I, and missed it dearly. He lived in Switzerland and the United States.
The last movement is the largest in both length and orchestral sonority. Near the end of the tumultuous music the composer brings in the old and famous “Dies irae” motif as well as the “Alliluya” from his “All Night Vespers.”
Mark Kanny is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.