Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Music of the City

Last night I attended the Pittsburgh Symphony concert at Heinz Hall.

The night began with percussion and the sound of winds, and that was before I arrived at the concert hall. The wind was the panting of myself and other latecoming patrons as we ran along the crowded Pittsburgh streets, hoping to arrive before PSO concertmaster and tonight's conductor Andrés Cárdenes would raise his baton, and the percussion was the impact of fireworks against the night sky, from the Steelers pre-Super Bowl rally at Heinz Field across the river.

I hurried up to the balcony and to my row just as the first piece was beginning. The hall was almost full, and my seat, of course, was in the middle. But everyone was very cheerful about letting me in. And once I got myself seated and had caught my breath, I detached my mind and put myself into that submissive mood were thoughts and impressions rise from instinct and not from analysis.

The piece was Samuel Barber's Symphony No. 1, Op. 9. The only thing I knew about it was that it was in one movement. I didn't read the program notes. I just listened, and as I did I found that the traditional musical terms for the parts of the work rose to the surface of my mind of their own accord. "Yes . . . what a lively Scherzo! . . . or would it be a Scherzetto? . . . . Ah, here's something rather Maestoso . . . . Here's a change, there's the Andante . . . " If I'd been trying to think of this on purpose, I never could have managed.

The second item on the program was George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. It was more than appropriate that that would be played in downtown Pittsburgh last night, for it always evokes urban bustle and activity for me: bright lights and cars, people hurrying to theaters and concerts, crowded stylish restaurants full of patrons sitting down to intimate and celebratory meals. And last night downtown Pittsburgh was crammed. All the playhouses and music halls were open, it was this month's exhibit opening night for the contemporary art galleries, and then you add in all the Steeler fans come down to cheer on the team. Traffic was so thick, I had to try five different garages before I could find a place to park-- that's why I was running late. Rhapsody in Blue was the ideal musical theme.

The piano soloist was Gabriela Montero. The playing of the Pittsburgh Symphony didn't quite rise to the level of her performance, but she sets a very high standard. I hate to say it, but the upward sliding call of the opening clarinet was a little bodiless. I had to say, "That was it?" But the brass made up for it later, especially the riffs from the muted trumpet.

There was nothing in the program about more music before the intermission, but I'd say almost everyone there knew what to expect. Ms. Montero is a master of improvisation, in a tradition that goes back to the young Mozart and before. She stepped to the apron of the stage and requested a theme from the audience. One man sang out, literally, "'A mighty fortress is our God!'" in recognition of the Mendelssohn Reformation Symphony to be played in the second half. But through the hubbub Ms. Montero said no, give her something more characteristic of Pittsburgh. And from several places throughout the hall, voices began to call, "'Here we go, Steelers, here we go! Here we go, Steelers, here we go!'"

She went to the piano and plunked it out: "Daa-da-da, da! da! Daa-da-da!"

"That's it?" she queried.

"That's it!" roared back the audience.

Whereupon she sat herself down at the keyboard and took that little call and stretched it, dressed it, inverted it, reverted to it, embroidered on it, and made it an object of classical delight. Classical, yes, then she added variations Romantic, Latin, and even jazz. Whew! What must it be like to have a genius like that! If I could have any complaint to make, it's that Ms. Montero did not, as I had hoped, end her improvisation on Here We Go, Steelers! with a grand fortissimo. Surely, that would have been better luck for the game on the 1st? But I told myself not to be silly-- we were there for music, not football.

Besides, her playing that has got to be good luck for us anyway!

After the intermission, the PSO played Felix Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 5 in D Major, "Reformation." And I do not care what anyone else thought, I found it to be well-played, lively, colorful, and not just the Allegro vivace, either. That second movement certainly evoked Germany at its sunniest, and when music can make Germany seem sunny, that's saying a lot.

It's a good thing I didn't read the program notes on the Mendelssohn until I got home. The writer had the nerve to imply that the quotation of "Ein' Feste Burg" in the Finale "burdens" it with "extramusical meanings." Excuse me!? What is "extramusical" about Master Luther's hymntune? And if it causes the listener to meditate on the ideals of the Reformation or on the history of the Reformation itself, what of it? Will this writer also throw out Vivaldi's Four Seasons or Beethoven's Ninth Symphony or his Eroica because they too carry "extramusical meanings"?


Me, I enjoyed the idea that this symphony was a suitable piece to play in this, the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin, even if it celebrates primarily the Lutheran side of things. In fact, wouldn't it be wonderful if musicians could come up with musical celebrations of Calvin this year? Maybe something based on the tunes of the Geneva Psalter!

But the Barber, the Gershwin, the Mendelssohn, and the Montero variations were not all the music we enjoyed in the city last night. I noticed that the intermission went on unusually long, and when the audience reconvened the piano was still front and center on the stage. And here came Gabriela Montero, Andrés Cárdenes with his violin, cellist David Premo, and clarinetist Michael Rusinek to play the John Williams "Air and Simple Gifts" that she had played with Itzhak Perlman, Yo Yo Ma, and Anthony McGill at the inauguration this past Tuesday. Ms. Montero expressed her gratitude for being able to play it this time in "a nice warm hall"-- despite the honor and thrill of being in on the inaugural performance, it was "real torture" playing outside in those frigid temperatures.

I tried sketching the quartet, but I took too long about it and didn't get them all. Funny, but it seemed like a longer piece when I heard it the other day. Maybe because I was wondering how they would manage to finish up by high noon; and as it happened, they didn't! It went very quickly last night.

Of course there were curtain calls after that, and lo! Maestra Montero came out wearing a Terrible Towel! Not only that, but--

I can be very slow about some things. When she first appeared for her solo in the Gershwin, I'd noticed that although her publicity photo shows her as a blonde, Gabriela Montero was wearing her hair in a nice and down-to-earth shade of brown. I'd noted that over black leggings she was wearing a flowing black tunic with a flowing jacket over it, black with a wide patterned dark yellow border over the hem. But now that I saw her with the Terrible Towel, it hit me-- She's wearing Black and Gold! She's in Pixburgh and she's wearing Black and Gold! And when she swung the Towel on her final curtain call, I knew it had to be good luck for Pittsburgh for two weeks from now.

Here we go, Steelers, here we go! [clap! clap!] Here we go, Steelers, here we go! [clap! clap!] Here we go, Steelers--!

(Oh, shut up!)

1 comment:

whiskers said...

Percussion and wind, lol. I do so love your evocative phrasing.