Sometimes, our expectations for something are so great that the reality is invariably disappointing. Recently the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, under music director Manfred Honeck, has been receiving such glowing reviews that it is tempting to expect too much from one of their concerts. Did they let me down? Read on, dear reader, read on.

Manfred Honeck conducts the Pittsburgh Symphony © Ed DeArmitt | Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Manfred Honeck conducts the Pittsburgh Symphony
© Ed DeArmitt | Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

A world premiere work began this week’s PSO program. Jonathan Leshnoff’s Double Concerto for Clarinet and Bassoon was commissioned by the orchestra and featured principals, bassoonist Nancy Goeres and clarinetist Michael Rusinek. The piece begins with the bassoon playing a beautiful lyrical theme that continues to dominate the first movement; this is picked up by the clarinet and it meanders in various forms through the strings. It is gorgeous music that never offends the ear. The second movement is a waltz that takes advantage of the quirkiness of the bassoon’s sound to add a puckish quality. A theme composed of short staccato notes, played by the soloists, begins the third movement. The orchestra then joins with various iterations of the theme, while also punctuating the work of the soloists. Leshnoff uses percussion sparingly and wisely. This is not cutting-edge music; it is firmly tonal, likeable and listenable. The performances of the soloists were flawless and Maestro Honeck ensured that the PSO never overpowered the sometimes delicate sounds of the bassoon and clarinet.

Beethoven’s monumental Ninth Symphony is a cornerstone of Western art music. Orchestras program it frequently, yet sometimes that greatness is nowhere to be found. Yet, given all the critical praise that Maestro Honeck receives for his interpretations of the Viennese classical canon, one might wonder, does he really deserve it? To the extent that one can make such a judgment based on a single performance, the answer is a resounding “Yes”. This was a performance of grand intensity that followed the arc of the music, from the quietude of the introduction to the grand finale some forty minutes later. The control of the violins in the opening murmurs was astonishing. The timpani, with strong yet focused strikes, were awe-inspiring in the Molto vivace, the third movement providing much needed respite. The finale unleashed a torrent of passion and beautiful sound that was spine-tingling. Honeck’s controlled dynamic contrasts add to the musical drama; this was very apparent when the low strings introduced the famous “Ode to Joy” theme. The rich sound of the PSO cellos and basses seemed to come from deep within the earth only to emerge into a grand statement of brotherhood that leaped into the heavens. The vaunted PSO brass was nothing short of amazing; the horn section was absolutely confident. Every note they played was perfect, down even to the smallest accents. This enabled Honeck to bring out inner voices employing the horns that lesser orchestras mostly blur. The trumpets were similarly gifted and the strings were models of precision and warmth. Pittsburgh’s Mendelssohn Choir showed a keen ability to respond to Honeck’s direction, including modifying their dynamics, even within a phrase. The Maestro chose an excitingly crisp tempo in the final movement march, which added even more spark to the fire. The soloists were placed behind the orchestra on stage right. Jennifer Johnson Cano, Christina Landshamer and Werner Güra were powerful vocalists. Shenyang’s “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!” sounded a little tentative, but he went on to provide a great performance.

Manfred Honeck, Christina Landshamer, Jennifer Johnson Cano, Werner Güra, Shenyang © Ed DeArmitt | Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Manfred Honeck, Christina Landshamer, Jennifer Johnson Cano, Werner Güra, Shenyang
© Ed DeArmitt | Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

Honeck seats the PSO sections in the European style, with the cellos adjacent to the first violins on his left and the second violins to his right. This worked well in Beethoven, especially in contrapuntal passages where the two sections play contrasting roles. The Heinz Hall auditorium is large and reverberant, yet the PSO plays with transparency and precision. Honeck understands this hall and coaxes his orchestra to keep its sound clean and clear.

This program will be performed four times this weekend. The lesson learned from this concert is that grand expectations do not always lead to disappointment, in fact they can lead to great joy and satisfation. Bravo to everyone involved in this standard-setting performance.

*****