Best Classical Concert: PSO Plays Mahler

December 23, 2012
by Andrew Druckenbrod, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Years ago, a Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra official tried to sell me on publishing a separate Top 10 of the year for the PSO and another for everyone else. It bothered me then, but now I realize it was because of a misunderstanding of how I view this annual list. My conception is a list of the most engaging and compelling concerts of the past year, not necessarily the best performances. If it were the latter, I probably would fill the list with 10 from Heinz Hall. That's not a knock on other local groups, who also play at a high level, but a testament to the world-beating level of the orchestra.

So, the two PSO concerts I list are not the only that impressed me last year, they are just the ones that most engaged me. The other issue with PSO concerts is that sometimes one work will shine, but another won't (or fireworks will explode during a concert, which kept the excellent performance of PSO clarinetist Michael Rusinek soloing in a Joan Tower concerto in November off the list). Pianists Yefim Bronfman, Olga Kern, Valentina Lisitsa and Juja Wang, violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and Hilary Hahn, composer/DJ Mason Bates and conductor Gianandrea Noseda all shined (proving why Mr. Noseda was named a titled guest conductor of the PSO in September). But in the end, two concerts led by PSO music director Manfred Honeck were most compelling.

1. Pittsburgh Symphony, Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh, Children's Festival Chorus and soloists: Mahler's Symphony No. 3 (Heinz Hall, June 11)

Emotions flowed in this concert, and not just because Gustav Mahler excels in culling them from patrons in his lyrical Third Symphony. But this performance, and those of the weekend, marked the end of an era at the PSO: the last time we would see violinist Andres Cardenes sit in the first desk as the orchestra's official concertmaster. After more than two decades as the connection between conductors and the musicians, providing leadership and excellent solos (which he did time and time again in the Third), Mr. Cardenes was moving on. The night was charged with compelling, even haunting solos by trombonist Peter Sullivan, oboist Cynthia DeAlmeida and trumpeter George Vosburgh (effective from backstage, as was a snare drum earlier). And the singers, soloists and choirs were en pointe for a cathartic experience.

2. Pittsburgh Symphony, Mendelssohn Choir, Chatham Baroque, soloists: Verdi's Requiem (Heinz Hall, Dec. 3)

Mr. Honeck made this performance of Verdi's celebrated mass for the dead an experience as much as a concert. Opening with local period ensemble Chatham Baroque performing Monteverdi before the PSO and Mendelssohn launched with gusto into the potent and dramatic work, the music director created both a theatrical and touching affair.

3. Pacifica Quartet (Carnegie Music Hall, Nov. 29):

One of my main rules in writing is never to use platitudes that don't actually say anything, such as "perfect." But there are always exceptions to the rule, and Pacifica's performance presented by the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society was just that to me. Its virtuosity, depth and cohesiveness in works by Beethoven, Shostakovich and Schubert made my proverbial jaw drop..

4. Yo-Yo Ma (Heinz Hall, Oct. 16)

Any appearance by the greatest classical musician of our time garners top status, but when you can hear Yo-Yo Ma in an intimate recital rather than playing a concerto, it is even more special. The PSO presented him performing cello sonatas by Brahms and Rachmaninoff and other works with his typical artistic risk-taking.

5. Pittsburgh Opera, "The Barber of Seville" (Benedum Center, Oct. 9)

The second of two Beaumarchais-based operas was taken over by the smaller roles of Dr. Bartolo and Basilio, or rather by singers Kevin Glavin and Paolo Pecchioli. That set the stage, as it were, for as buoyant and funny a rendering of Rossini's classic as you are likely to hear.

6. Pittsburgh Opera, "The Marriage of Figaro" (Benedum Center, April 24)

The leads led the way in this unaffectedly staged and elegantly designed Mozart masterpiece. Bass Oren Gradus and soprano Sari Gruber, as Figaro and Susanna, meshed so well in Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" that at times one forgot it was an opera.

7. Chatham Baroque (Synod Hall, Feb. 20)

With this concert, baroque violinist Andrew Fouts showed he has completely meshed with, and even become the musical leader of, the period ensemble Chatham Baroque. He joined Patricia Halverson (viola da gamba) and Scott Pauley (theorbo, lute and baroque guitar) in a concert of laments, and he impressed both with expressive melody lines and by engaging the audience. For this group that uses instruments of the past, the future was on display.

8. PNME Albert, starting over (City Theatre, July 9)

The Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble played Thomas Albert's "Night Music" twice in this concert. After the group missed an entrance, dropping a portion of the piece, conductor Kevin Noe played the movement again. The honesty was something I'd never seen in the music biz, and it only made the excellent performance of the piece and other works, such as Joan Tower's "Petroushkates" and David Lang's "Little Eye," all the more compelling.

9. ICE (The Andy Warhol Museum, Jan. 9)

Co-presented by Pitt's Music on the Edge and the The Andy Warhol, the International Contemporary Ensemble took up a local composer's work (Amy Williams' "Cineshape 1") with sensitive music-making, and also impressed in works by Elliot Carter, Magnus Lindberg and Philippe Manoury.

10. Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival (Rodef Shalom Congregation, June 7)

This concert exemplified what this festival is about. It introduced audiences to the obscure European composer Leo Zeitlin (1884-1930) -- who was pushed aside as much for his Romantic leanings as his religion -- and it promoted local composer David Stock's "Two Yiddish Songs," all with excellent performances, not just lip service.

Andrew Druckenbrod: adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750. Blog: Classical Musings at post-gazette.com/music. Follow him at http://twitter.com/druckenbrod .

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