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Review: PSO debuts of Israeli conductor, Spanish guitarist impress

Mark Kanny

Don’t be put off by the scheduling peculiarity of the second week of Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra subscriptions concerts falling in mid-October.

The program features two debuts: the exciting young Israeli conductor Omer Meir Wellber and the soulful Spanish guitarist Pablo Sainz Villegas. The concert on Friday night at Heinz Hall was memorable in many ways.

Wellber was immediately impressive in Claude Debussy’s “Petite Suite.” Despite a marginally slow tempo in the first movement, he showed several appealing traits, including imbuing melodies with sweep through dynamics within the phase. His ear for balance is remarkable. He wants to hear everything, even inner voices.

Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez was the vehicle for the debut of Villegas. He played without amplification, as did Pepe Romero at the last Heinz Hall performance of this piece with Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos on the podium. Fruhbeck invited Villegas to perform with him and the symphony this weekend, but the Spanish conductor died in June.

Viilegas produces a very different sound from Romero, who uses his fingernails on the strings. Villegas produced a lovely round sound using the flesh of his fingers and playing on a magnificent instrument.

Villegas received an extended standing ovation. His encore, “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” by Francesco Tarraga, was exquisitely played in Fruhbeck’s memory.

Wellber chose Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s sprawling “Manfred Symphony” as the culmination of his debut — and made it work. The composer resisted writing a piece on Lord Byron’s poem for two decades, though one might have thought its depressive nature would have appealed to Tchaikovsky.

The Israeli conductor fully embraced the expressive extremes of Tchaikovsky music and brought the score’s colors boldly to life. Refinement of balance in Debussy is one thing. Wellber was also impressive in the bigger sounds of Tchaikovsky. The brass playing was powerful but not too loud as it often is.

Wellber led an excitable performance, a depressive-manic performance. The opening movement explores a vein of feeling the composer would present with greater mastery in the finale of his “Pathetique” Symphony.

This concert will be repeated at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Heinz Hall, Downtown. Admission is $25.75 to $105.75. Details: 412-392-4900 or pittsburghsymphony.org.

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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