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Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra wins praise on tour

Wednesday, November 20, 2002

By Andrew Druckenbrod, Post-Gazette Classical Music Critic

The Pittsburgh insecurity complex should take another hit following the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's recent excellent showings at New York, Philadelphia and Boston. But it's one thing to hear how well it performed from a Pittsburgh critic and another to hear it from someone in New York City, isn't it?

Well, the reviews are in and they are quite good. They vary, since all critics do, but the overall impression is one of tremendous respect for the musicianship of the PSO and music director Mariss Jansons. This is best seen in the critical response to the pianist Krystian Zimerman's late program change, a move that shattered Jansons' concept for a program arranged around Shostakovich.

Typically, classical music critics would savage this sort of alteration, but they gave the PSO the benefit of the doubt.

"The change threw off his concept," wrote Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times of the Carnegie Hall concerts, but it did not throw off the critic's positive review. Tommasini liked the performance of the substituted Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 and also praised the rest of the two programs. He called the PSO's Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10 a "bold, volatile, often beautiful (though sometimes deafening) account," and he was impressed by how Jansons let the orchestra "cut loose" for the composer's "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District" suite.

Newsday critic Justin Davidson, who attended the first of the two Carnegie Hall concerts, agreed about "Lady Macbeth" and said that the PSO endowed Britten's "Young Person's Guide" "with ebullient majesty." However, he discerned "some wobbly moments in the brass and an unconventional tempo or two" in the Brahms.

For Peter Dobrin of the Philadelphia Inquirer, the PSO concert at the Kimmel Center produced some camaraderie: "The commonwealth has such incredible orchestra quality ... what other state can make that claim?" In the Shostakovich Tenth, he thought "the orchestra exercised impressive individual and ensemble muscle." Most telling, perhaps, was his comment that "the violins were lustrous," quite a compliment coming from one who hears the Philadelphia Orchestra on a weekly basis. For the record, he thought the brass played solidly. (Actually, so did Tommasini.)

With the concert at Boston's Symphony Hall came the only positive commentary about Shchedrin's "Dialogues With Shostakovich." Richard Dyer of the Boston Globe called it "brilliant and dramatic." That's in sharp contrast to Tommasini's response ("20 minutes of wrong-note counterpoint, bombast, aimless lyricism and skillfully scored orchestral effects") and that of the Boston Herald's Keith Powers ("too much time making bold statements, and too little time ruminating"). Powers also mentioned that the brass "blasted out a few careless notes," but he praised its energy.

As for soloists, most of the critics appreciated the playing of Zimerman and the singing of Jane Irwin.


Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750.

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