On Stage: Hearing the Dance

Photo by Paul Kolnik

Normally I don’t like to hear signature ballet music (“The Nutcracker” immediately comes to mind) without seeing the choreography. But a while back I was attending a Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concert where selections from “Swan Lake” were part of the program. Surprisingly the music stood on its own and displayed colors and textures that I never heard before.

As a result of that experience, I thought I would try it again sometime. So when I saw that Manfred Honeck was conducting the PSO in “A Waltz Tradition” and given that he, as an Austrian, would be expert at conveying iconic Viennese music, I thought this might be another sort of dance adventure, even within a historic musical setting.

But the whole idea first brought to my mind George Balanchine’s “Vienna Waltzes,” created for the New York City Ballet. Set in three sections, it beautifully captures the spirit and fine energy of this highly-cultured European city, beginning with a sylvan setting by The Waltz King himself, Johann Strauss, Jr., then moving on to a high society salon for Franz Lehar’s “The Merry Widow” and ending with the sumptuous sweep of Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier,” the mirrored stage awash in swirling white silk gowns and black tails.

Photo by Paul Kolnik

Could a symphony orchestra match those ravishing images? As it turned out, the concert put forth its own blend of elegance and sophisticated wit that rarely surfaces at the PSO. The program also included Johannes Moser’s Olympian interpretation in the  Dvorak Cello Concerto, which Maestro Honeck called “the entree.” It was followed by “a lot of desserts,” each more delicious than the last.

Some might have called it a meringue, given the light classical nature of the music, but there was such style and effervescence that the second part of the program was simply infectious. Not all were waltzes, of course, for Maestro Honeck was a master planner.

If anyone was keeping count, there were only two waltz selections. Polkas abounded, including “Tic-Tac” and “Little Chatterbox,” which happened to have PSO children twirling ratchets. And a confident soprano Rebecca Nielsen provided visual interest and musical surprises in the “Laughing Song” and “Audition Song.”

Photo by Jason Cohn

But I didn’t feel cheated because the waltzes were simply luxurious, given the hiccup of rhythm so expertly inserted in Johann Strauss, Jr.’s overture from “Die Fledermaus” and the celestial nature brother Josef’s lovely “Music of the Spheres.”

Even without the dance, there was plenty of movement to be perceived, with a wonderful contrast to the tempi, how Maestro Honeck could tease the audience as he slowed down to almost nothing and, soon afterwards, carry the waltz to dizzying new heights. Certainly Maestro Honeck fulfilled this dance viewer’s expectations. And, although the patter between songs was still a little stiff, he had a charming presence and an unforced sense of authority.

There are certain things that knowledgeable Pittsburgh visitors should see when they come to town. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater may top the list for its long-time historic value. Coming in a close second and leading Pittsburgh’s performing arts scene, a Honeck concert is a must-see.

I have observed the orchestra under six music directors and the musicians have never been so responsive as under this great talent, who is still considered young for a major conductor. This was a waltz tradition that has been around for hundreds of years, but it was alive and robustly well at Heinz Hall. If next year is anything like this, it should be a hot ticket. The Vienna Philharmonic should know — the group has already tapped him for a similar format in its annual New Year’s Eve concert.

In the meantime, check out the Pittsburgh Symphony website for more immediate opportunities to see the master Maestro.

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