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Music Review: Ohlsson brilliant in powerful concerto by Hersch

Saturday, March 15, 2003

By Andrew Druckenbrod, Post-Gazette Classical Music Critic

In light of all the trades Pittsburgh has seen recently, could we have one more: Michael Hersch for Paul Dukas? That would bump the latter back to the minors where he belongs and create room for an original contemporary composer.

Joking aside, a Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra program last night at Heinz Hall followed PSO Composer of the Year Hersch's new Piano Concerto with Dukas' "La Peri" and Wagner's Overture to "Tannhauser," prompting me again to wonder why we hang onto so much mediocre old music in favor of the joys of something written for us, rather than those long dead. "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" is a fine work, but the rest of Dukas' opus hardly puts us under a spell.

Even so, the PSO, in the debut of resident conductor Lucas Richman (subbing for Hans Vonk), was appropriately less judgmental, choosing to perform all pieces with equal aplomb. Richman is beloved in the orchestra's ranks, and he is a strong technician, but he will someday learn to be less polite on the podium and bring his ideas to bear on a group. His respectful approach worked well with a great orchestra and a war-horse such as "Tannhauser," but with the superficial "La Peri" and the complex concerto, the orchestra needed stronger direction at the macro level.

When Hersch first arrived on the scene, the focus fell on such things as his youth and his tonal music. This novelty has worn off, thankfully leaving us to concentrate on what was important all the time -- his music.

Hersch is well known to PSO patrons, with works such as "Ashes of Memory" and Symphony No. 2, but he is truly coming into his own now. The Piano Concerto, co-commissioned with the symphonies of Oregon and St. Louis and performed expertly by Garrick Ohlsson, is a tremendous achievement. It not only recasts the very nature of concertos but creates a realm of illusive meaning and segmented thought that mirrors the way we think and mourn. (It is his response to 9/11).

The former Hersch accomplishes with a second piano (offstage), three slow movements and idiosyncratic pianistic technique, while the latter comes with two or three measure fragments that grow naturally out of the texture of clusters to temporarily calm or inflame the spirit of the listener.

So fleeting are these fragments -- even a reserved four-note motif central to the work -- that one cannot grasp them. But the letting go of control frees the listener like a traditional melody cannot. The novel aspects of the concerto, from the extra piano to the use of practice mutes in the brass (but not the video screens giving close-ups of Ohlsson, which were placed by the PSO, not Hersch), ultimately meld into this grand dirge that seeks, not unlike Mahler, to encompass a whole world.

Hersch could not ask for a more committed approach to the work than what the substantive pianist Ohlsson gave. It requires a rethinking of the basics, such as runs and chords, and Ohlsson delivered it brilliantly.

The performance repeats at 2:30 p.m. tomorrow.

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

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