Today’s matinee concert by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under guest conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier featured works by Berlioz, Korngold and Rachmaninov that were notable for their fresh interpretive insights. The concert began with a vivacious performance of the Roman Carnival Overture by Berlioz. The work was created in 1844 as an exhibition piece displaying the composer’s skills as outlined in his recently published handbook on the art of orchestration. Nearly all of the thematic material was drawn from Berlioz’s opera Benvenuto Cellini, which already had an overture, and so the piece was used as a prelude to the second act of the opera which is set at a Piazza Colonna carnival. It is most famous as a standalone work.

Simone Lamsma © Otto van den Toorn
Simone Lamsma
© Otto van den Toorn

Tortelier and the PSO strings tore into the overture’s opening flourish, and this was followed by a beautiful English horn solo, joined by additional winds. As the carnival atmosphere built, Tortelier adopted a bracing tempo that was terrifically exciting, with particularly stentorian horns and other brass. The performance was a rousing curtain-raiser, making one wonder why this overture isn’t programmed more often.

The Berlioz was followed by a richly indulgent presentation of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D major,  a piece which has experienced a noteworthy increase in popularity. When I first saw the work performed in the 1970s, it was a true rarity with just one modern recording available. Back then, the fact that the concerto’s major themes came from several of Korngold’s Hollywood soundtracks was cause for critical disdain – even derision. But recent decades have witnessed the Korngold concerto grow in stature to become a repertoire staple.

It’s natural to be reminded of Heifetz, Perlman and several other legendary violinists whenever encountering this concerto. In the midst of such august company, Simone Lamsma brought her own special measure of artistry to the Korngold concerto. Hers was a lyrical performance that was also highly expressive. Mandatory when it comes to performing Korngold well, Lamsma coaxed sweet tones from her instrument, but the interpretation was so much more than that. I sensed a depth of feeling in Korngold’s melodies that in the hands of other violinists can come across as mere surface appeal.

Tortelier and the Pittsburghers were the perfect partners in all three movements. I was particularly impressed with the Romanze movement, where violinist and orchestra conjured up a mesmerizing atmosphere. Korngold’s “tuneful percussion” and harp scoring were used to great effect here.

In the final movement, Lamsma was able to show off her very commendable virtuosic skills – the showy (and technically demanding) variations being tossed off with aplomb. In the end, this performance was the most impressive one I’ve ever heard – on recordings or in the concert hall – an amazing artistic feat. After not being able to leave the stage (literally), Lamsma treated the appreciative audience to an encore that was similarly extraordinarily played – the final movement from Paul Hindemith’s solo Violin Sonata.

Following the intermission, Maestro Tortelier and the PSO presented work that faced similar critical pans when it was first presented: Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances. The composer may have been just 67 years old when this music was premiered in 1941 by Eugene Ormandy in Philadelphia, but he was already considered an “old man” by the cognoscenti – a musical has-been whose über-Romantic style was hopelessly out of touch with modernity.

It took many years for the Symphonic Dances to become the repertoire staple that it is today. The reason for its ultimate popularity is obvious: conductors, musicians and audiences alike love this music for all of its passion and color. Indeed, Rachmaninov’s original title – Fantastic Dances – and the three movements (Noon, Twilight, Midnight) still ring true.

In the opening movement, Tortelier adopted a slower tempo than one often encounters, but well in keeping with Rachmaninov’s tempo marking of non allegro. The contemplative middle section was one of great beauty, featuring an achingly gorgeous tenor saxophone solo complemented by the oboe, clarinet and other woodwind players.

The waltz that followed, introduced by sinister fanfares, seemed like a fitful dream sequence, with superlative interplay between the numerous solo passages and the orchestra. In the finale, the Pittsburgh musicians put their all into the increasingly manic musical picture, replete with quotations of the Dies irae. Unlike some other interpreters who keep their foot firmly on the gas pedal as the music hurtles through the final pages of the score, Tortelier chose more deliberate tempos – yet with no loss of impact. As for adhering to Rachmaninov’s notation to let the final stroke of the tam-tam resonate, for the first time in my lifetime of seeing this music in concert, a conductor did exactly that; how marvelous it was.

*****