Symphony Close to Firing on All Cylinders

Article excerpt

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra gets back to its Mellon Grand Classics concerts on Friday, more than three months since its last one.

Classical subscription concerts Friday and Sept. 30 will be led by principal guest conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier, part of the artistic leadership team that's beginning its third season of filling in since the departure of music director Mariss Jansons. The other members of the team are artistic adviser Sir Andrew Davis and guest conductor Marek Janowski.

The transitional nature of the current season was emphasized at its start by the presence of Manfred Honeck, who becomes music director in September 2008. He spent the week after Labor Day getting acquainted with people in Heinz Hall and the community, and gave a single performance. Honeck led the musicians in the "Voices of Spring" waltzes by Johann Strauss Jr. at the end of a season preview concert Sept. 6. Of course, he's Austrian, and was a violinist in the Vienna Philharmonic for a decade, so his stylistic assurance in this repertoire was to be expected. But as with his performances of more substantial fare, the individuality of details, the response of the musicians and the cumulative effect of his interpretation made for a special event.

Symphony musicians already have performed several other concerts at the start of the 2007-08 season, including a successful gala. Soon, Marvin Hamlisch will launch the Pops season. Educational and community-outreach efforts are important components of the symphony's identity, too.

Nevertheless, the Mellon Grand Classics subscription series is the orchestra's raison d'etre and most defining activity. Those concerts are the most extensively prepared, most numerous, occupy the largest part of the symphony's artistic budget and provide the repertoire for touring.

The symphony's experiment with a trio of conductors with titles in a leadership team for classical subscription concerts -- despite some excellent performances by each of them -- only ended up reinforcing the value of a single music director for artistic definition as well as clear public identity.

Davis, Janowski and Tortelier are completely different artistic personalities, which contributed to a feeling that the orchestra was being tugged in different directions and was, in a sense, adrift. …