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Symphony Review: PSO, guitarist make up for conductor's deficiencies

Saturday, February 19, 2000

By Andrew Druckenbrod, Post-Gazette Classical Music Writer

There are many ways to test the level of an orchestra. Usually, it's what heights it reaches. Occasionally, as in the case of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra last night, the criteria are what depths it avoids.

With the exception of guitarist Christopher Parkening's fiery rendition of Joaquin Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez," the concert at Heinz Hall wasn't up to the usual PSO standard. But it could've been worse. The orchestra rallied despite the general lack of direction from the evening's guest conductor, Norio Ohga.

Ohga does know how to direct, but more in the realm of business. He is chairman of Sony Corp. -- yes, the $56 billion global electronics and entertainment juggernaut. That he is a brilliant man and a skilled business leader is without question. But that sort of life precludes the years of training you need to conduct well, even if you have musical talent, as Ohga does. He was a professional singer in his youth.

Ohga clearly knew the evening's repertory -- including Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony No. 3 and Yasushi Akutagawa's "Musica per Orchestra Sinfonica" -- backwards and forwards. But he had difficulty relaying it to the group in the form of gestures indicating entrances, dynamics, expressiveness.

Most orchestras would have floundered under the circumstances, but the PSO showed its mettle. Darting eyes flashed in the sections as members looked to each other to stay together and play reasonably well. The only thing they couldn't judge for themselves -- balance -- did cause problems.

Parkening's performance of Rodrigo's celebrated guitar concerto was the highlight of the night. He played with a decided edge, fiercely attacking the phrases and pushing the issue. The harsh edge of his tone propelled the work, more than once giving the illusion that he was rhapsodizing straight from his head. The famous second movement English horn solo by Harold Smoliar was gloriously earthy, with a deep resonance.

Written in 1950, Akutagawa's "Musica" is a fascinating work, with a carnivalesque feel. Ohga didn't do much with the piece, though it is good that he is promoting the works of a neglected countryman abroad. Only during the "Eroica" did Ohga warm up to the podium. Conducting from memory, he was far more expressive. Whether the PSO followed him at that late point is another question.



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