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Concert Review: Embattled Dutoit in complete control

Saturday, April 13, 2002

By Andrew Druckenbrod, Post-Gazette Classical Music Critic

On the surface, last night's Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concert looked like any other. But unveiling the greater context, a dark cloud appeared above guest conductor Charles Dutoit.

Long a favorite in Heinz Hall, he is now embroiled in a major crisis with his own ensemble, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. Facing a possible suit against him from his players, Dutoit tendered his resignation Wednesday night. He is in his 24th year at the helm of the orchestra that has achieved artistic milestones under him, specifically with recordings. If Dutoit were to leave, it would certainly be a sad ending to a fruitful relationship.

It's impossible to tell a person's emotional state when their head is facing the other way, but Dutoit most definitely let out some steam through his conducting. His reading of Ravel's "Alborada del gracioso" emphasized harsh percussion hits and extreme volume contrasts. What it lacked in color it gained in darkness of tone. Dutoit did exactly what every guest conductor should: maintain the high level of play while changing the sound of the group, putting his fingerprint on it.

The story was the same in Dutoit's expert interpretation of Holst's "The Planets." He is willing to let loose the reins, trusting the PSO to get the details while he attends to the greater picture. The result was movements that contrasted the way Holst intended. "Mars" outdid any fireworks display, fueled by genuine anger and driven to extremes. "Jupiter," however, was warm and balanced and "Venus" delicate. The trombones were stellar in "Saturn" and the women of the Mendelssohn Choir sang the wordless strains of "Neptune" precisely, even though they were placed off stage.

In between was a piece that barnstormed its way to the audience, Khachaturian's Piano Concerto. This is a perfect example of how a mediocre work can lead to a great performance. Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet threw thunder and lightning at the keyboard as he navigated the flashy, but unsubstantive themes. The charismatic Thibaudet's confidence as a performer lifted the concerto to a higher level.

For his part, Dutoit cultivated an epic ambiance for the concerto, making it seem larger than life. This intelligent approach allowed its pretension to reach a logical conclusion -- a hollowness not unlike the communist system for which it was written in the Soviet Union.

The concert repeats tonight at 8 and tomorrow at 2:30 p.m.; call 412-392-4900.

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