Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Funiculi, Funicula at the Pittsburgh Symphony

Noseda & Concert Italia, Pittsburgh Symphony
January 18, 2012
Hank Walshak

The more I listen to our Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the more I stand in awe of its musical prowess. Concert Italia   was no exception. Once again, the orchestra justified its world-class reputation under the direction of Gianandrea Noseda, sought-after Music Director of the Teatro Regio Torino.

Gianandrea Noseda
The first piece on the program, La note di Platon (“The Night of Plato”), an orchestral sketch, was composed in 1923 by Victor de Sabata, renowned Italian conductor and one of  Italy’s two, musical gods—the other being Toscanini. The music depicted an evening feast arranged by Plato about 407 BCE. At this feast, Plato proclaimed to friends and colleagues that he would abandon the poetic and hedonistic life to follow the teachings of Socrates and pursue the life of the spirit, detachment, and self-denial. His announcement met with non-receptive ears, grumbling and complaining.

I marveled at the way the Pittsburgh Symphony   moved us through the wrenching changes of Plato’s old and new devotions. What drama and resolution in this piece! Melodies depicting wild dances and people wrought with concern over Plato’s decision gave way to languid melodies suggesting carnal pleasures. These musical paintings then melded into the counterpoise of soft, contemplative strains leaving us to imagine Plato, quietly sitting alone in his room, reflecting on his new self-direction.

The second piece on the program, Concerto in D Major for Piano (Left Hand Alone) and Orchestra, by Maurice Ravel, was a knock out, because of Benjamin Hochman’s spell binding, keyboard artistry that revealed another side of Ravel’s compositional talent.

If you’re relatively new to the music of Maurice Ravel, as I was, you’ve probably listened to Bolero, his best-known, and famously repetitious, one-movement orchestral piece, premiered in 1928, the same year he toured the United States. Listening to tonight’s concerto for left hand only revealed another dimension of his talent.

Pianist, Paul Wittgenstein, brother of Ludwig, the renowned Austrian philosopher, had asked Ravel to compose this piece. Paul had lost his right arm in World War I, but had continued to transcribe and play pieces for the left hand.

Benjamin Hochman, winner of the prestigious, 2011 Avery Fisher Career Grant among many other notable awards and achievements gave new meaning to left-hand virtuosity as he performed this concerto.  More than once, I closed my eyes and it sounded as though he played the entire keyboard with both hands.

My wife, Jeannette, and I sat close enough to observe Hochman’s fingering. Afterwards, we traded thoughts on his performance. “His precision was outstanding,” she said. “When I thought of his playing left-hand only before the concert, I thought he’d concentrate only on lower melodies he could play from middle C and lower on the keyboard. But he played the entire key board with one hand. What an artist.”  

The third piece in tonight’s concert, Aus Italien (“From Italy”) by Richard Strauss, conjured
up his visions during his visit to Italy in 1886. This appealed to my visual sense. It’s difficult
to imagine anyone visiting Italy and its picturesque cities like Verona, Bologna, Rome,
Florence, Naples, Sorrento, Salerno, and Capri without breaking into song about these places.

Well, Strauss didn’t sing about his visit in 1886. He composed Aus Italien Opus 16 a
symphonic tone poem, his first, in four parts, faithfully rendered by our Pittsburgh Symphony
Orchestra. This piece held a pleasant surprise for us that we’d hear in the fourth part.

Auf der Campagna (“In the Country”), the prelude, wafted us across the Roman countryside as experienced by Strauss from the Villa d’Este at Tivoli. Roms Ruinen ("Amid the Ruins of Rome"), written as a great symphonic (sonata form) first movement, carried us back to the empire's and the city’s past glory.

Am Strande von Sorrent (“On the Shore at Sorrento”), captured the mood of Strauss as he took in the sounds of nature and helped us to imagine the softer, spiritual sounds he heard near the seaside. The audience then pepped up for the fourth part, Neapolitanisches Volksleben (“Neapolitan Folk Life”). Here’s the surprise: If you’ve ever heard the catchy Italian melody Finiculli Finiculla, you heard it again in this part.

The  performance stayed with me for days afterward, as I saw in my mind’s eye, Mr. Noseda deftly guiding the symphony through these widely varying pieces and as I hummed Finiculli Finiculla over and over. And I kept wondering how Benjamin Hochman could achieve the heights of keyboard he has reached.

 Hank Walshak

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