News Column

PSO guest concductor captures joy, vitality of 'Four Seasons'

May 31, 2014

By Mark Kanny, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

May 31--Nicholas McGegan is widely acknowledged to be an expert in 18th century performance style, but he's much more than that.

His appearance as guest conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Friday night was a reminder of the rare vitality that he brings to music making.

The concert opened with one of the most popular pieces of the baroque era, Antonio Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons." Young Korean violinist Ye-Eun Choi, who studies with the same teacher in Munich as concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley had, made an impressive Heinz Hall debut as soloist in the four virtuosic and programmatic concerti.

The concert program booklet is worth reading for the Vivaldi because it wisely includes the four sonnets Vivaldi printed in the score, which indicated precisely what the music illustrates -- from Spring's joyful arrival to birds and streams and a faithful dog.

Choi played with impressive virtuosity at some extremely fast tempi. Her lyricism was nicely poised and never romantic.

The symphony string section, which was reduced in size for this baroque music, played with stunning virtuosity and body of sound. Sometimes it was too much, leaving little room for the soloist to shine.

McGegan conducted from the harpsichord, though what little playing he did could hardly be heard in the vast expanse of Heinz Hall.

The concert became even more impressive in the second half because the often hyperkinetic music making of the Vivaldi was shed in favor of a more balanced yet no less decisive approach.

The Chaconne from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's opera "Idomeneo" certainly challenges a conductor's sense of proportion, containing as it does many contrasting sections. The woodwind playing was lovely and nicely prominent in this piece and the next one -- both from the later part of the 18th century.

Franz Joseph Haydn's Symphony No. 103 provided the superb conclusion. Nicknamed the "Drumroll" because of its opening for timpani, the drum part was tastefully embellished.

McGegan led a joyously musical performance combining a stylishly rich sonority, beautifully judged tempi and a naturally expressive style which was free of eccentricity. The second movement featured many wonderful solos by the concertmaster and principal winds, all perfectly set with their accompaniment.

This concert will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Heinz Hall, Downtown.

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media.


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