This Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concert conducted by Fabien Gabel was a typical one for this conductor, containing the kind of repertoire he often selects for his programs. The opening number was Valses nobles et sentimentales, Ravel's tribute to the waltzes of Schubert (to my ears they're nine parts Ravel to one part Schubert). Gabel's interpretation was über-sophisticated and, under his direction, the musical atmospherics lay midway between a watercolor and an oil painting – the perfect balance. The epilogue, with its allusions to what has gone before in the music, was particularly spellbinding.

Karen Gomyo, Fabien Gabel and the Pittsburgh Symphony
© Aleta King

Canadian violinist Karen Gomyo took to the stage to present two works – the familiar Chausson Poème plus a contemporary concerto by Samy Moussa (also a Canadian). Moussa's Violin Concerto, here receiving its US premiere, is an interesting piece that unfolds as a sort of “stream of consciousness” composition, with ambient sounds and sustained chords being predominant characteristics of the music. The concerto has four defined sections, the first three played without a break. A lengthy introduction paints a static landscape, followed by a recitative for the violin consisting of repetitions of broken chords with harmonics, but seeming a little directionless. An agitated section of much greater musical interest followed, where the violin and orchestra deliver equal measures of virtuosity. A short epilogue that revisits the original material ends the concerto. Violinist Gomyo played the work with obvious conviction and technical brilliance, while Gabel and the Pittsburgh players provided sensitive support. While the piece certainly has its interesting moments and provides plenty of opportunity for hypnotic atmospherics, is this enough to ensure its long-term success in the concert hall?

Programming Chausson's Poème following the intermission break was a smart move, because the impact of the Moussa concerto was bound to pale if performed directly beside such a masterpiece. This gorgeous heartbreaker is the quintessential romantic piece in which the violin is allowed full rein of passion, sentimentality and even anguish. There's a risk of the music being ‘overplayed’, which thankfully did not happen here. Gomyo's technically flawless performance gave full expression to the emotional arc of the piece, bringing forth the pathos to great effect while allowing the tension to build and ebb. The final moments of her performance were cathartic.

As its fourth work, the PSO presented Stravinsky's complete Petrushka. Titled “a burlesque in four scenes”, this is Stravinsky's transitional ballet score that bridges the late-Romanticism of The Firebird and the astonishing modernism of The Rite of Spring. Gabel chose the composer's 1947 version of the score, with its slightly reduced instrumentation.

The opening Shrovetide Fair tableau conveyed the carnivalesque atmosphere in brilliant colors, with brass and percussion pronouncements adding to the thrill. The tableaux set in the rooms of Petrushka and the Moor benefited from emphasizing the music’s dissonances and angst-ridden character. The final tableau, which takes us back to the fair, was played to the hilt by Gabel and the Pittsburgh players – and things became even more wild with the last, deadly confrontation between the Moor and Petrushka.  As for the Pittsburgh musicians, they acquitted themselves across the board in the numerous challenging solos. The trumpet passages may not have been note-perfect, but when the music is being played as excitingly as it was here, who cares? Mention should also be made of the piano’s star turn, simply dazzling. In all, this was a viscerally exciting performance of Stravinsky's ballet, one that told the story just as convincingly as if there had been dancers on the stage.