I heard and saw one of the more thrilling symphonic concerts of my decades of concert-going last night. Carolina Performing Arts is presenting an unusual two-night visit from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and the multi-faceted brilliance of the first night’s playing was clearly not an aberration. Led by Manfred Honeck, the PSO played with precision, warmth and passion a varied program that concluded with a heart-poundingly gorgeous rendition of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D major. Tonight they will play a different program which will wind up with the Shostakovich 5th. If the Mahler was like riding the biggest roller coaster ever, it’s reasonable to expect that the Shostakovich will be like riding the Tilt-a-Whirl. Fasten your seat belts, kids.
The program on the 28th included Mason Bates’ Rusty Air in Carolina, full of the sounds of cicadas and katydids that he learned to love in his summers at the Brevard, NC, summer music festival. It was a pleasant opener, and beautifully played, but quickly forgotten when soloist Valentina Lisitsa (who made her own path to the world’s stages via her YouTube channel) strode to the piano in a silver cloud of a dress and proceeded to play the living daylights out of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. If you ever get a chance to hear her, sit where you can see her face. She sings to herself, and her emotions cross her face like scudding clouds and flashes of sun. The musicianly communication between her and conductor Honeck was equally thrilling. After one particularly glorious passage, she flicked her hand at him, as if saying–top that, buddy–and I think he winked.
But the Mahler! Honeck, like Mahler, is Austrian, and began his career in Vienna. His interpretation of the music was so rich it set off a whirlwind of colors in my mind, and his command of the orchestra is such that each tone and texture had unusual clarity. The volumes and relationships of the various sections are carefully controlled: nothing is muddy; everything builds. And you could enjoy Honeck if you were stone deaf, his conducting style is so visually engrossing. Check it out tonight. I can hardly wait to see what magic signs he uses on Shostakovich.