To paraphrase Richard Strauss’ advice to young conductors: “If you think the brass are playing too soft, ask them to play softer.” Manfred Honeck, music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony, clearly thinks that the brass can never play loudly enough. On Sunday he brought to New York his boisterous interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, on a program balanced with two examples of more refined musical expression.

Manfred Honeck, © Jason Cohn
Manfred Honeck,
© Jason Cohn

First was the New York premiere of Silent Spring, a tone-poem by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Steven Stucky. The work was commissioned by the orchestra in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the book by the same name, written by pioneering environmentalist (and Pittsburgh native) Rachel Carson. Silent Spring the book brought public attention to the threat that chemical pesticides posed to the environment and human health. Stucky chose evocative chapter headings from the book to create a varied, effective work with “its own dramatic and emotional journey.”

The first section, “The Sea Around Us,” began with low tonalities in the contrabassoon and harp, growing in volume and intensity before reaching a vehement brass chorale. A few woodwind noodles along the way recalled Debussy's La mer. A lonely English horn wandered among murky strings and winds in “The Lost Wood.” High sighs in the strings and slow descending lines in the winds resembled the Tristan Prelude played backwards. A piano built the spooky music to a height, leading us into “Rivers of Death.” Strong brass chords ushered in an anguished, fleeting section with divided violins, like watching a rainstorm on a lake. The last section, “Silent Spring,” began with soulful strings, with voices dropping out one by one. The bass clarinet took one of the last phrases, then a gong and timpani sounded, until we were left listening to nothing except our own selves. Carson’s point exactly. It was a varied, beautiful piece, given a thoughtful, committed reading. Here’s hoping it gets played some more.

What’s not to like about Hilary Hahn? Gorgeous in a poppy-colored gown with her long white arms moving with an elegance that matches her flawless technique, she played with a startlingly resonant sound, tasteful interpretation, and an evenness of tone no matter what she was playing. In Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto no. 1, she floated her tone nicely on the piece’s many singing moments, added hints of portamento, and dug in energetically as needed. But it was largely a straight performance, without risks. The one noteworthy exception came in the rambunctious second movement, when she played some ponticello passagework with an appropriately gritty, dry sound that leapt out of the texture. Hahn is certainly capable of moments like that; why doesn’t she give more? For an encore she played a hushed, nuanced account of the Sarabande from Bach’s Second Partita.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 5 is a piece that audiences and performers dig into like a juicy hamburger. This confessional work, leading the listener from the composer’s innermost torments to raucous triumph, offers something for everyone, and in the right hands it is a study in contrasts, textures, and emotion. In the wrong hands it’s merely loud and long.

Maestro Honeck managed the miraculous feat of making it both very loud and surprisingly nuanced. The Fifth is his calling card, the piece he programs whenever he debuts with a new orchestra, and he pays attention to every aspect of phrasing, balance, and tempo. Details normally missed leapt out of the texture, like the low woodwind groans behind the strings’ theme in the opening Allegro or the stopped horns punctuating the waltz in the third movement. Even contemplative moments, like the immortal beginning, had a restless energy that challenged the listener to guess the next step.

But it’s as if Maestro Honeck, a former violinist in the Vienna Philharmonic, is living out some sort of fantasy of drowning out his erstwhile colleagues in the string section. He staffed four trumpet players when the score calls for two, and instead of using them merely to enrich the sound, he encouraged them to go for broke. As a result, string playing was drowned in a sea of brass off-beats, and in passages of the coda, we heard little besides the trumpets and tuba blasting out tonics and dominants. It was not the most subtle interpretation, but it was certainly exciting, and a tribute to the virtuoso musicians of the Pittsburgh Symphony.

In case there wasn’t enough energy in the room, the encore was the antic Galop from Aram Khachaturian’s Masquerade Suite. In the cadenza, principal clarinet Michael Rusinek threw in a snippet from the Tchaikovsky, and a few bars from Leonard Bernstein’s song “New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town!” We love you too, Pittsburgh!