September 15, 2008

Brush Up on Offerings to Enjoy PSO Season More

By Mark Kanny

Some people look forward to summer, but I look forward to the fall. I took a couple of weeks off in August, and they were wonderful. But the fall always brings renewed focus and energy.

For music lovers, the coming season is full of delights waiting to be discovered or rediscovered. The most exciting prospect is Manfred Honeck's arrival as music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Although his three previous concerts at Heinz Hall have included two world premieres, this season he's focusing on the rich Viennese tradition in music at his eight weeks of subscription concerts.

Honeck leads musically charismatic performances that combine his passionate and insightful interpretations with inspired playing from the orchestra. Such performances can be overwhelming whether or not one has heard the specific pieces of music before.

Yet, it does make a difference whether one is experiencing something for the first time. In college, I had a wonderful teacher for Russian literature. In retrospect, his most valuable lesson was written on the cover of my paper on "The Brothers Karamazov." It certainly wasn't the good grade he gave. It was the four powerful works that modified it -- "for a first read."

The principle applies broadly in life, not only to artistic or academic matters. It's true of cooking and woodworking. Specific experience is liberating to imagination and produces better results.

Therefore, my modest suggestion to people who like going to concerts is to consider an experiment. Pick a piece of music you don't know that you will be hearing later in the season. Buy a recording of the piece and listen to it right away, months before the concert. Listen again; repeat a single movement that appeals you. Then put the disc aside and forget about it.

I expect the effect when you go to the concert will be analogous to the effect of cleaning your car windows, or putting on glasses if you need them. Your perceptions at the concert will be clearer without any further effort at all.

Putting time between listening to the recording and going to the concert is a key ingredient. Lorin Maazel made that point during a conversation when he was music director at Heinz Hall. He said that one time when he was going Russia to conduct, he also arranged to see some plays by Alexander Pushkin. He said he re-read them months before his trip. Of course, Maazel being Maazel, he also used reading the plays to brush up on the Russian language.

Looking to repertoire the symphony will play in 2009; consider Antonin Dvorak's Eighth Symphony, which Honeck will conduct on Feb. 27 and 28. It abounds in glorious melody, not merely pretty but filled with the composer's generous heart. The optimism in his Eighth Symphony has special depth because he had more than his share of suffering in life, especially the death of several of his children when they were young.

You'll find you develop your own responses to the music. Does that marvelous horn solo in the slow movement feel like the sun breaking through the clouds? Does the wistfulness flavoring the middle of the third movement suggest the mixed emotions of life's complexities? There's no correct answer, just what you discover for yourself in yourself.

The three recordings I recommend with enthusiasm are by Istvan Kertesz and the London Symphony on Decca, George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra on Sony, and Sir Colin Davis and the Concertgebouw Orchestra on Philips. They are all available now, unlike the marvelous one by Carlo Maria Giulini and the Chicago Symphony for Deutsche Grammophon.

Be forewarned that the experiment may prove habit forming. That's how personal libraries get started. Then, even as you make concerts more rewarding for yourself, you also free yourself from the repertoire choices that happen to be offered during any given season.

If you find you love the Clarinet Concerto by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, you won't have to wait 10 years to hear it again at Heinz Hall. And as special as that masterpiece by Mozart is, there are many more than a thousand pieces in the classical repertoire worthy of being a favorite. They're just waiting for individuals to discover for themselves.

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