Philharmonic at Heinz

Last Wednesday night, Heinz Hall, the home of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, was home to the Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic. For this concert, the Philharmonic was conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, the artistic director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO). The program included Dvorák’s beloved Symphony No. 9 in E minor, subtitled “From the New World,” and Shostakovich’s cheeky Symphony No. 9 in E-flat major.

The Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic was prepared by Walter Morales for a week before they played at Heinz Hall. Davis worked with the orchestra on the Monday and Tuesday before the concert. This is a common practice among orchestras, even professional orchestras like the PSO. An assistant conductor often prepares the PSO, familiarizing it with new works or reacquainting it with classics, so the guest conductor can work on details rather than the basics.

Most professional orchestras run a very compact rehearsal schedule. The PSO typically performs concerts on Friday and Saturday evenings, and Thursday nights or Sunday afternoons. The Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic gives numerous concerts throughout the year. They typically rehearse for about two weeks before giving a concert.

Davis has previously recorded all of Dvorák’s symphonies. I heard the seventh and eighth symphonies and thought the performances were quite dry. The sound was very full and Germanic, not the type of sound that suits Dvorák’s economical but colorful symphonies. A lot of the magic of Dvorák’s music is its spontaneity and the sudden returns of themes in new, colorful ways — something that Davis’ interpretations lacked.

So, Davis and the Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic had the weight of my expectations against them on Wednesday night. Overall, the performance came off very well. Davis’ interpretation of the first movement was rather static. The first movement of the “New World” symphony is a journey, but I was left feeling lost, like I had not gone anywhere. I was dismayed as the wonderful waypoints of the first movement passed by without any significance. This was mostly due to Davis’ fiddling with the tempos too much. The orchestra distinguished itself throughout, however. The confidence of the brass section was projected in nearly every blast of sound, and the woodwinds were full of personality.

The second and third movements were very good as well. I was not happy with the brass chords that open the second movement. The brass section slid through the chord changes rather than moving to them, denying shape to the harmony. The English horn solo was enjoyable, while the theme had a sense of movement and was not overly articulated and mannered — a pitfall often seen with dotted rhythms. The third movement was distinguished by very rhythmic percussion that gave a lot of energy to the sound. And the wind solos with string accompaniment sounded very authentic; the accompaniment was strongly accented.

The fourth movement was very exciting. The brass was very powerful and full of conviction in this movement. Davis’ conducting was good as well. Some strategically placed accelerandos created even more energy. The violins were decent throughout the piece, although they were prone to some rushing.

The second half of the program consisted of Shostakovich’s ninth symphony. When Shostakovich was asked to write the piece, the Soviet authorities wanted a grandiose celebration of the Red Army’s victory in World War II. They wanted his symphony to be on the same massive scale as Beethoven’s ninth symphony, the famous home of “Ode to Joy.” Shostakovich’s reply was a short, chamber-like symphony with extended solos. Shostakovich’s cheekiness is aptly demonstrated by the fact that his symphony is in E-flat major, a half-step from the key of Beethoven’s ninth, in D major.

Davis’ interpretation of the symphony was excellent. The performance kept the symphony’s spirit of wit and cheekiness. Shostakovich often wrote parts in his orchestral works that showcased a particular group of instruments, such as the winds. Carnegie Mellon’s winds often play in small ensembles with each other, and this familiarity showed. The second and fourth movements accumulated great poignancy. Davis did well to make use of the silence and minimal accompaniment to create an atmosphere of pensiveness and reflection. The wind solos in these two movements displayed an astonishing emotional maturity. Also, the trumpet solo in the third movement, although it lost a bit of velocity, was full of bravura. The fifth movement was very good as well. Davis decided on a breakneck pace at the end of the movement. The tempo was effective, but its execution less so. The violins tended to speed up, and then the winds slowed things down with a tone too large for the speed of their parts. The final bars were perfectly played, though, and the symphony ended with a bang.

All in all, the concert was a fantastic success and the Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic’s playing was very impressive. The orchestra and conductor got a massive round of applause that culminated in a standing ovation. Kathryn Petrarulo, a first-year music major and horn player in the Philharmonic, said, “We’ve had really good concerts, but this was one of the best.” She felt that the orchestra worked well with Davis, who was very funny and outgoing with the orchestra.