PSO heavenly with 'Planets'; local composers' works shine

The Planets-An HD Odyssey
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

By Elizabeth Bloom

Friday night's Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra performance was out of this world. There's a pun but no irony intended, as the concert showcased Holst's "The Planets" alongside a film of images and animations of space. The feature presentation was "The Planets -- An HD Odyssey," by director and producer Duncan Copp, which has been shown at performances by several professional orchestras, such as the Houston Symphony and the New York Philharmonic.

The film's stills and videos included some imagery provided by NASA, along with animations, all of which were often timed to move or match with the music. The experience was, in a word, cool. Some of the visually arresting images were works of art unto themselves -- colorful, gray, still, moving, broad and detailed -- and the effect of the film matched or even, at times, enhanced the music.

In "Mars, the Bringer of War," pictures of the planet's surface scrolled at different speeds. Venus' milky surface played well off music director Manfred Honeck's sensitive conducting. In "Neptune, the Mystic," bluish hues highlighted poignant sonorities, also smoothly delivered by women from the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh. Landscapes inspired awe, while craters juxtaposed musical textures with planetary ones.

At times, the movie toed the line between majestic and cheesy. During "Mars," shifts in images provided undue emphasis on music that needs no help. And in "Jupiter," the quick-moving pictures felt like a screensaver. Still, the film made for a special concert experience, and an expressive PSO performance only enriched the overall effect.

The concert began on earth, with the PSO commission and world premiere of "The Elements." It is really five small pieces about Pittsburgh's land and history, written by local composers for the orchestra's Year of Pittsburgh Composers. The sections, each about five minutes long, had immediacy and, thanks to the Pittsburgh theme, relevance, and the PSO deserves kudos for showing off the local talent.

Patrick Burke's "Flourish," inspired by Pittsburgh's hills, rivers, is a hopeful tribute to its future. The music started with a pensive horn solo and jumpy strings but filled in fully with a rocking pulse and gorgeous melodies from the strings. Mr. Burke's work brought out gorgeous sonorities from all sections.

Next came Bomi Jang's "Awake," which nods to Pittsburgh's dwindling urban forest. Ms. Jang clearly has a natural feel for the capabilities of orchestral instruments. Her work created a fascinating sound-world with a water gong, rolling bass drum, scratchy strings and high piccolo.

"Eliza Furnace," by Mathew Rosenblum, is dedicated to Pittsburgh's iron mill workers. The microtonal nature of work created an interesting Doppler Effect of sorts, and the composer thoughtfully deployed metallic instruments, particularly brass and percussion, in the work, leaving one wondering what sort of music exists in daily life that we might miss. Amy Williams' "Flood Lines" was influenced by historic photographs of Pittsburgh, in particular of the 1936 flood. Rumbling from double-bases hinted at chaos, but the piece surprised at the end with a poignant, jazzy solo from piano.

Rounding out the fabulous five was Reza Vali's "Ravan," inspired by the Youghiogheny River. The dance-like scherzo with allusions to Persian music showed off the woodwinds in particular. The fast outside sections unearthered a feeling of high tide.

The performance started out with a video in which the composers briefly explained the thematic ideas behind their pieces, and it only deepened the first listening experience.