Sunday, January 19, 2014

Roving Pittsburgher Report - Exploration of Emotion at PSO’s Haydn & Zarathustra

Exploration of Emotion
A Review of PSO’s 2014 January 17th Concert - Haydn & Zarathustra

A clever start to the concert brought a smile to my face.  Now of course, I should let on that I’m partial to this era of music and the one before it.  So in my opinion Franz Joseph Haydn and his contemporaries of the first Viennese School hit that sweet spot.

What I love about Haydn’s Symphony No. 22 in E-flat major, “The Philosopher” is the cheekiness that
Christoph König
(Photo from
emerges amidst stuffy austerity, a kind of Jane Austen feel.  Guest conductor Christoph König maintained the beautiful dichotomy of this piece in every way.  While the piece begins with an adagio, it can sometimes, unfortunately, be almost dirge-like, but König maintained the perfect and unyielding tempo.

With a continuo that oscillated between solid but not plodding, delicate but not tentative, and firm but not harsh, the perfect foundation was laid for the antiphonal cleverness that Haydn was known for.  Soaring above, and woven into the continuo, were the subtle blossoming of long arching swells in the Adagio, suspenseful rumblings both vivacious and robust in the Presto, and a delightful Menuetto that pleasantly whisks you away.  The Finale begins with an intense drive to reinforce control and above it a beautiful call and response plight.  This work showcases the diverse spectrum of tone created by the French and English horns, from warm to pungent tones paired with mellow but crisp strings.

The concert then turned from flirting with danger to living in danger.  Richard Danielpour’s symphony Darkness in the Ancient Valley depicts the struggle of an Iranian woman living in an abusive relationship, choosing to not respond to violence with yet more violence.  Every night I watch the national news, thankful that I live where I do.  The stories that Elizabeth Palmer reports are unfathomable to me.

Hila Plitmann
(Photo by: Marc Royce)
Danielpour created a beautiful cacophony of sound that dramatically creates whining horn sirens of distress, a careless romp of tyranny, frantic bells attempting to flee, brief melodies of hope, strings crying of agony and a single violin pleading – praying.  Then the terror-filled pursuit continues, full of intense chases alternating with very brief moments of relief, until finally being trapped with no where to turn.

The final movement featured soprano, Hila Plitmann singing an English translation of a 13th century poem by Rumi.  Her voice soared gloriously above huge orchestral swells of pain and doom.  The Iranian woman’s bewildering and dutiful perseverance are professed, along with ethereal sounds of harp and bells and soaring strings of hope.  And she stands there, takes the final blow, and does nothing in retaliation.  I was baffled by her strength, grace and inner peace.  Her story was that of many who suffocate under an oppression most of us can not fathom.  PSO’s playing and Hila Plitmann’s singing of Darkness in the Ancient Valley left my heart and mind wrenched.

After intermission, a smile returned to my face with the familiar and bombastic grand entrance of trumpets. Oh yeah, some Also sprach Zarathustra, Opus 30 by Richard Strauss! And while I do like this work, what made me smile more was the young gal in front of me was seat dancing – yes bee-bopping in her seat at the symphony, with her date quietly giggling at her.  And one might think this reaction would be confined to young, inexperienced symphony goers. But oh no, a woman a few seats down and probably 40 years her elder was head bobbing rhythmically too – both beaming with smiles.

(Photo from
PSO crushed this one.  From percussive wonderment to lush enveloping hope and ecstasy, the curious pursuit of the unknown to exhilarating happiness, an unraveling dream sequence to sounds tumbling into consequence and despair, tonal sonorities were folded in one over the other, making it growingly more complex like home made bread.   The human quest for understanding kept soaring with what seemed to have no tonal resolution, and when we thought that guy in the front (Noah Bendix-Balgley) couldn’t play any higher, so beautifully, so in tune ‑ it kept climbing and soaring and searching. And then ‑ we were left hanging, wandering

As for the young gal in front of me, well I asked her if she had ever heard the full work or just the opening.  She had, in fact, never heard the whole work, but I enjoyed the enthusiasm she had as she, without being prompted, told me how even though the piece had lots of different parts that had very different feelings that she thought it was cool how she could hear that recognizable theme resurface at various points.  I loved that she enjoyed it and was there experiencing something that seemed maybe outside the normal date-night activity.

That was a well crafted emotional roller coaster of music.  The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra fully embodied the spectrum of human experience and emotion depicted in all three works beautifully.  Christoph König was a delight to watch.  He had stealthy, clean and subtle gestures that commanded rich and accurate sound – and was cute in a non baby ducks sort of way.  Hila Plitmann “shined bright like a diamond, shined bright like a diamond.”  As a fellow soprano I’m probably most critical in this area, but she was exquisite in both sound and performance.

My first night at the PSO #awesome!  I’m putting the PSO on my list of favorites, right up there with Jimmy and Nino Sunseri’s sfogliatelle (which tastes like Christmas in your mouth).  I love to hear precision and passion in music and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra has both.

Not to go all Eminem on you, but if you missed this concert, “you’ve got one shot, so don’t miss you’re chance.”  Its Sunday, January 19, 2014 at 2:30 PM.
(c) 2013

Stephanie Curtice
Good News Reporter & Contributing Journalist

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