Review: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra glides through creative program

Mason Bates
Pittsburgh Tribune

By Mark Kanny

Moving from strength to strength, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concert Friday night featured winning new music, a superstar soloist who exceeded expectations and an impressive and satisfying performance of familiar music by conductor Juanjo Mena, who was making his Heinz Hall debut.

The concert opened with “Desert Transport,” the final piece this season by Mason Bates, the symphony's young composer of the year. He spoke before the performance, explaining the ideas and perspectives animating “Desert Transport,” which was first performed a year ago.

Just as John Adams' “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” was inspired by a ride in a very fast car, Bates' piece works off a helicopter tour the composer took in Arizona.

Bates received a standing ovation at the conclusion of “Desert Transport,” which is accessible music full of creativity on many dimensions — from sonority to inventive developments within his thematic material.

Guest conductor Mena made a favorable impression from the start, embracing Bates' bold sonorities and rhetorical content. Leonard Bernstein's “Serenade” was much more than a vehicle for Joshua Bell. He employed his beautiful and tone brilliant technique to serve the music on the highest level.

I wish Bernstein could have heard Bell's fourth movement, in which the violinist's soft dynamics made this particular consideration of love — the subject of “Serenade” — feel unforgettably spontaneous and full of fantasy.

Mena was at first a respectful accompanist but developed real energy and forward style as the performance unfolded. The finale, when drunken revelers interrupt the high-minded, after-dinner discussion about love, had the right mix of sensuality and physical urgency.

“Serenade” is one of Bernstein's masterpieces, both unified and wonderfully contrasted, and moving with that stylistic fluency Bernstein loved.

The Spanish conductor concluded the concert with a very musical reading of Johannes Brahms' Third Symphony, one which had an ever natural rubato for lyrical expression, beautiful balances that brought more contrasting lines to the ear than usual, and a strong sense of drama.

The performance was filled with wonderful playing, not only solos but also the special delight of combinations — especially oboist Cynthia DeAlmeida and hornist William Caballero as one.