March 15, 2019
The Pittsburgh Symphony
Juraj Valčuha, conductor
Lukáš Vondráček, piano
Rachmaninoff – Concerto No. 3 in D minor for Piano and Orchestra (1909)
Respighi – The Fountains of Rome (1916)
Respighi – The Pines of Rome (1924)
There’s something timeless, solid and reassuring about attending a concert in Pittsburgh. The place seems contented. “The burghers are industrious” is an old fashioned way you might put it. Citizens seem to take themselves seriously. Businessmen still wear ties. Nobody pushes and shoves, the way New Yorkers do in that elbow war of a city. People make time to talk to each other in line. And conspicuously missing are the cadres of oddballs and disaffected protesters one encounters in San Francisco. Davies Hall usually features an exhibitionist in an “Uncle Sam” top hat, or the world’s most narcissistic blind man, who sways wildly above the percussion section wearing sunglasses and competing with Stevie Wonder for attention. Compared with the social ferment of all that, Heinz Hall’s Friday audience seemed pleasantly tame. And if there were fewer young people in attendance on date night than you’d see in San Francisco, it was reassuring to note that most of them weren’t undergoing psychological repair or held together by rivets.
The all-orchestral program for this concert was ideal for a nostalgic listener: three romantic works designed to get the girl, all written within fifteen years of each other; a rising Slovak conductor at the helm of the orchestra; a spectacular young Czech pianist at the keyboard; and a powerful sense of spontaneous methodicity from all concerned. Rachmaninoff’s piano writing in the concertos is fluidly propulsive. It doesn’t fight the orchestra. It just moves with it, rolls along with it. Lukáš Vondráček, making his Pittsburgh debut, demonstrated not only a flawless ability to charge down that road. He managed to change lanes at will, scratch out on the shoulder gravel, pass traffic, relax serenely at rest stops and avoid the Highway Patrol, all the while convincing us he mesmerized the traffic signs into approval. Vondráček is an introverted bear of a pianist, but huddling over the keyboard belies the originality he brings to the patterns of notes. Originality in classical performance is different from being “different.” You bend the rules without breaking them. This was real artistry, and powerful at that. With Juraj Valčuha and the orchestra fully on board, this Rachmaninoff Third Concerto was as exciting and satisfying as any performance you will hear. For his encore, Vondráček performed Schumann’s Träumerei, gently and slowly. In Schumann’s canon it’s a lullaby. But in our hearts, it is a goodbye to everything beautiful we wish we could protect—and know we cannot. There were sniffles in the house: mine.
I’m always struck, when I hear them, by how successful Ottorino Respighi was in evoking the Italian past in his big orchestral pieces. The Fountains of Rome and The Pines of Rome exhibit full orchestral modernity, yet strategic modal harmonies hidden within the music carry you back in time and bring the musical journey to your ears as legend. Somehow, Respighi’s fountains are burbling away two thousand years ago, and the catacombs are ancient ones. The creepy, mysterious army which sways slowly up the Appian Way in The Pines of Rome, comes to us at dawn with spears and horses, not tanks and motorcycles, the way it might in Shostakovich. And as the invader faintly stirs to life, it is as if, through a sinuous woodwind memory, we can smell the coffee, the olive oil, the horse leather and the manure of the Roman Imperial past.
Juraj Valčuha, somewhat formal in classic white tie and tails, turned out to be a superb colorist in the Respighi. Valčuha is not one of those conductors who throws himself all over the stage. Instead, he conserves his energy like a fencer and periodically wields his baton like a sword from below. As the phenomenal brass section of the Pittsburgh Symphony (and there is surely none better in the USA) hit its stride, Valčuha cued the offstage trumpets with the serenity of a jet pilot. And as the army crashed wildly in front of us, he seemed to impale it to a halt.
I was happy with this program, this orchestra and this city. I’m sure the Pittsburgh Symphony plays new music, but I was glad this time that it didn’t. Visiting Pittsburgh takes one back to the era of granite and brick. I was happy to experience music like that here. It seemed all of a piece.