Review: Symphony serves up near-perfect feast
Thanksgiving weekend concerts by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra have acquired a winning focus under music director Manfred Honeck. This year’s program was the most successful to date because both halves of the concert were transporting, though in different ways.
Honeck described it perfectly after intermission, saying the first half of the concert Friday night at Heinz Hall was a substantial meal while the second half would be lots of desserts.
German cellist Johannes Moser made a sensational debut with a fiery and lyrically inspired account of Antonin Dvorak’s Cello Concerto. The writing for the solo instrument is full of virtuoso demands on technique, which Moser played with panache. But Moser really soared in conveying the music’s extraordinary emotional journey.
Fittingly Moser, Honeck and the orchestra were a tightly knit team, presenting a strong and unified concept of the score. Countless woodwind details that are usually lost came out in assertive chamber music style. When it was time for bows, Honeck had the entire wind section stand up.
My only significant reservation concerned the degree to which Honeck slowed down in the first movement’s orchestral introduction for the second theme, played by solo horn.
Dvorak marked it to be slightly more sustained here, but Honeck slowed down so much it was as if a chunk of the slow movement fell into the first movement. Dvorak actually used it later in this movement, but wanted the rhapsodic effect for the cello soloist.
The slow movement was broad and hit on real emotional truths with both poise and intensity. And the way Moser gives a lift to the shape of a phrase is one part of his appeal. He is also an exuberant young musician with depth. When will he be back?
Three guest principal players performed, including concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley, who plays Dvorak’s violin solos with intensity and shape. Guest principal flutist Adam Kuenzel was impressive in both halves of the concert.
The most impressive of the guests was timpanist Ed Stephen, whose playing was perfectly delineated. He’s a Pittsburgh native who studied with past symphony members Stanley Leonard and John Soroka.
After intermission, the desserts were by Johann Strauss Jr. and his brother, Josef, along with a few choice songs by Franz Lehar. American soprano Rebecca Nelsen had the theatrical flair as well as vocal agility to enchant and delight the audience and was joined by her sister for one of the encores.
It was all fun with a family touch, including children playing chatterboxes in a polka.