Honeck leads PSO in triumphant 'Eroica' symphony

Alisa Weilerstein
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

By Jeremy Reynolds

Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” is one of the great works of the 20th century, a piece that began its life as a movement for string quartet before Barber made transcriptions for string orchestra and, later, choir.

Friday’s Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concert in Heinz Hall featured a work of reverse origin, the world premiere of Irish composer Sir James MacMillan’s “Larghetto for Orchestra,” originally composed as a chorale work (“Miserere”) in 2009 and orchestrated in 2017 as a PSO commission.

Music director Manfred Honeck led the performance, which also included Schumann’s Concerto in A minor for Cello and Orchestra with soloist Alisa Weilerstein and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, “Eroica.”

Mr. MacMillan’s commission began somberly, transitioning slowly from fraught to gentle reverence during its 13-minute run. The composer treated the orchestra as multiple choirs, with strings, winds and brass each contributing chorale-like sections as well as blending to create new shades of sound.

The music was most effective in its brassy moments of fanfare. Here, Mr. MacMillan added a range of volume and feeling that no choir in the world can replicate. Principal trombone Rebecca Cherian’s solos in particular squeezed every drop of expression from an arrhythmic, repeated note. Most of the rest of the music, however, sounded as though the musicians were playing choral music, which they were. Both versions are worth a listen.

Ms. Weilerstein’s Schumann was engaging throughout, her melody arresting from the first note. She projected well, and the orchestra played with vigor without covering her sound (easy to do with a lower pitched solo instrument such as the cello). It’s easy to hear why her playing has so captivated the world—she sings each note with a warmth and care that is at once familiar and unique.

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