I’ve been meaning to write something nicer about the classical music scene in Pittsburgh for a couple of months to get my angry rant about how not to appeal to the youngs off the top of my front page. Sadly work and other obsessions have kept me from this task until now, so the casual visitor to this site might think I am much more down on the state of the PSO than I really am.
Over the years seeing the classical musics live has evolved into a thing to do while during the darkest and coldest months in our dark and cold winter. For whatever reason the PSO seems to put the juicy core of their season in the months of January through April. The early part of the season, which goes from fall until Christmas is overrun with shows that pay the bills but lack anything really interesting to listen to. The later months are too warm to enjoy sitting in a dark room with a lot of people in suits. So, as we finally lurch into May, through an April that was mostly as cold and miserable as any February it’s time to think back on another year of the music in Pittsburgh, so here are some highlights.
The Pittsburgh Symphony
My motivation for this post was to indicate how the PSO bounced back from the debacle of The Creation. They mostly did this on the back of some staples of the “canonical” late-romantic repertoire. There was a great Mahler 1, and an even greater Bruckner 9. There was Bronfman’s rendition of the Beethoven Piano Concerto #3 that surprised me because I found it thoroughly enjoyable instead of the usual tedious concerto slog. I had the same feeling about the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 that came before the Mahler. For me the concertos are often the hardest of all the big standards of the orchestral repertoire to pull off. I think this is mostly a personal problem that I have. I just feel like the more abstract and distant emotional nature of the pieces sometimes make it hard to really connect with the performer.
The rest of the concert series was a reasonably admirable attempt to inject some lesser heard pieces into the stream standards. So when Minnesota music director Osmo Vänskä visited he paired a nice performance of the Beethoven 5 with Kabalevsky, Stravinsky, and Rautavaara. My recollection of this show was that the Beethoven was very enjoyable, and that Vänskä also gave a post-concert performance of a nice chamber piece involving an oboe and strings. But I wish I could remember even one second of the rest of it, but I can’t. When I cheated and found the Rautavaara piece, A Requiem in Our Time for Brass and Percussion, on the Apple Music I was able to remember it a bit. You should listen to it just for its unusual combination of instruments.
Thus, while I complain about the general lack of adventurousness in the PSO programming it is also apparently the case that I am part of the problem. In my defense, a few of the other lesser programmed pieces this year did make an impression. The Carreño Margariteña was great. Jennifer Higdon’s Tuba concerto (world premiere!) was up to her usual standards of excellence (if you want a reasonably accessible path into the world contemporary classical composition, Jennifer Higdon is a great place to start). Finally, there was the Janáček Sinfonietta. I don’t know why our orchestras don’t play more Janáček (or the other central European composers from around that time including Suk, Martinu, Smetana and so on). This stuff is great and very distinct stylistically without requiring people to swim in the deep and mostly soulless waters of the mid-twentieth century academic avant garde. Again, if you are looking for something off the beaten path in newer classical music, start here (and with the Russians).
So overall I thought this was a good year. I still have most of my standard complaints (not enough interesting different things, too many awkward attempts at “outreach” in the most crustified concert series they have, and a new one: those horrible giant LCD TV screens on the sides of the stage that for some reason they can’t turn off), but when this band hits full speed and full volume on that stage, it’s really hard to deny how excellent they are and keep giving them money so they can stick around.
Chamber Music Pittsburgh
The chamber music series that this group runs is consistently excellent and mostly more interesting per unit time than what the PSO does. It’s a rather spare six shows a year. You have to go on Monday nights. Carnegie Music hall is a great and intimate space, but the seats are not comfortable.
But, you get a lot back for your trouble. While obviously smaller in scale and overall complexity when compared to what an orchestra can do, taken as a whole the chamber music series is able to cover much more ground musically than the PSO is able to, and in fewer shows per year. The chamber groups are for some reason less tied down to the idea that they must be a vehicle for presenting our “Great Musical Heritage”. It certainly feels like the there is more of a mix of lesser known and more modernist composers along with the big names. So for example the Orion Quartet played Mozart, Kirshner, and Dvorak, and one of the best shows of the last few years happened in 2013 when the Parker Quartet played Mendelssohn, Erwin Schulhoff’s String Quartet No. 1 and then the Shostakovich 9th.
Meanwhile, on the more “adventurous” side, the series will also include music that the high brow Great Music people would tend to sneer at as not classical at all (heaven forbid you commit the sin of crossover). I think the most interesting show of this kind from this year had a performance of the Stravinsky ballet L’Histoire du Soldat (from noted local Dance outfit Attack Theater), then a world premiere jazzy chamber piece called Noir in Blue by Wynton Kelly Stone Guess, then a short set of actual jazz from the stage for the second half. Some other highlights from the more eclectic shows included the Ahn Trio playing Prince, the Danish Quartet playing their arrangements of Danish folk music and the Quator Ebene blitzing through some Miles Davis.
You should be able to tell that I’m a big fan of the chamber series. But, while chamber music has a reputation for being a bit more detached and niche than the regular orchestral repertoire, I think the opposite should be true. If you are just dabbling in the classical music world, I would recommend one of these shows much more highly than the more complicated and stratified world of the PSO. Not only is the venue more intimate and a bit more forgiving, but the being able to see what every player is doing individually makes the music easier to follow, even in the longer and more complicated pieces. It’s a great place to learn the structure and flow the music in more accessible context, and you can apply what you learn to the larger pieces, which use many of the same techniques, just with more players.
So if you can’t make it to, or feel nervous about the PSO shows, give the chamber series a chance. You’ll thank me.