The notion of the decline of America’s “Big Five” orchestras has been batted around for at least the last decade, usually with such knowing nods of agreement among critics and observers that it is now taken as gospel. There’s a cyclical feeling to this conversation: every few years, when another fine orchestra is having its moment, we start hearing about the Big Five again, and how we don’t care about them any more. To be sure, the members of that august fraternity—the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the New York Philharmonic—are not so completely dominant in the field as they once were. The recording boom has contributed somewhat to that change, as has the flood of expert musicians from ever-growing conservatory classes competing for a handful of full-time chairs—the orchestras of Houston, Minnesota, Atlanta, and others have become formidable ensembles, and a few, such as the San Francisco Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, now enjoy international fame.

There is no denying, however, that a certain mystique still hangs around the five orchestras that built America’s musical culture in the first half of the twentieth century. These are the ensembles that embark on major international tours, headline important festivals, and play to sold-out audiences at Carnegie Hall year after year. There’s a certain box-office logic to this: Chicago, like Vienna or Berlin, is going to draw crowds on the strength of its reputation alone; casual concertgoers may not be so inclined to take it on faith that less renowned orchestras like the Dallas Symphony are worth a slice of their cultural budgets.

A certain mystique still hangs around the five orchestras that built America’s musical culture.

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra has long been one of America’s better ensembles, an outside challenger to the Big Five even in their heyday. The orchestra has enjoyed a parade of storied leaders, from Fritz Reiner to William Steinberg, André Previn, Lorin Maazel, Mariss Jansons, and, most recently, Manfred Honeck. Honeck will be well known to New York audiences: his guest appearances with the New York Philharmonic have been uniformly excellent, including, last season, the most thrilling performance of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony that I have ever heard. Indeed, he was widely considered a leading candidate to replace Alan Gilbert as the Philharmonic’s Music Director, before that honor went to Jaap van Zweden.

Under Honeck’s baton, the pso has recorded almost constantly, pressing some dozen albums in the last decade on the Reference Recordings label. Whether these discs show a “distinctive” sound is a matter for longer consideration, but they do show a tight, powerful ensemble with a conductor capable of leading riveting interpretations. Listen to the ferocity of attack in the opening bars of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, giving way to unforgiving bleakness (2017)—or listen to the finale of Beethoven’s Fifth, and admire how the heroic melodies of the brass rise over intricately structured chaos (2015).

Attention to detail seems a crucial element of Honeck’s approach as a conductor: ensure that each individual facet is meticulously crafted, and the complete picture will emerge. Formerly a violist with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (where his brother Rainer still serves as a Concertmaster), he can discourse for half an hour on the vital role that specificity of vibrato plays in determining the color of the strings; or on the perfect amount of metrical stretching to make a Viennese waltz truly dance. It’s not hard to hear the results of this kind of work in his performances—I recall an astonishing Mahler Second with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood, making a powerful impression with a spectacular range of textures, maintaining a simmering energy even in the music’s stillest moments.

In December I heard Honeck lead the pso at their home, Heinz Hall, a jewel of a concert venue whose Gilded Age grandeur might trick you into believing it’s served the orchestra for a century or more. Located in the heart ofPittsburgh’s Culture District, just a block or two from the southern bank of the Allegheny, Heinz Hall began life as a movie palace in the early twentieth century; it wasn’t until 1971 that it opened as a 2,600-seat concert hall, after extensive refitting.

In the Northeast, we’re used to the public spaces in our music venues feeling a little cramped: for all the refined beauty of their auditoriums, the corridors at Carnegie Hall or Boston’s Symphony Hall get tight at intermission. Walking around Heinz Hall during a break is a luxury—classic red velvet carpets fill spacious lobbies and complement the gilded detailing of the walls, all beautifully maintained. The sweeping main staircase in red marble anchors the building and offers sightlines from the top of the house to the bottom. During my December visit, the grand atrium opposite the stair was occupied by an enormous Christmas tree, its tip sitting just between the two chandeliers that hang from the vaulted ceiling.

That weekend’s performance was perhaps the pso’s most ambitious project of the season, a staged adaptation of Haydn’s Creation. The 1798 oratorio is a massive work, as befits its subject, and is divided in three parts: the creation of the heavens and the earth, the creation of the animals, and finally the life of Adam and Eve in paradise (conveniently leaving off before the narrative turns sour with the unfortunate fruit business). The Creation does not lend itself so easily to dramatization as do Bach’s great Passion oratorios—it doesn’t revolve around character arcs in quite the same way, and yet the vividness of both text and music does seem at times to cry out for theatrical realization.

That’s not to say that it cries out for this particular theatrical realization. The director Sam Helfrich (who directed a compelling production of Péter Eötvös’s Angels in America for New York City Opera in June) chose a generic schoolroom as his setting, casting the Archangel Uriel as a laid-back science teacher, with Gabriel (a soprano trouser-role, here played as a young woman) as the star of the class and Raphael as her somewhat dimmer but no less enthusiastic male counterpart. You might think you know where this is going: perhaps Haydn’s about to get dragged into the fight over Creationism in schools, that great cultural melee of the early 2000s.

Alexander Elliot and Rachele Gilmore in Haydn’s Creation at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Ed DeArmitt

Mercifully, Helfrich seemed to have no particular axe to grind with his conceit, which left his production feeling not so much preachy as just plain glib. A bunch of fidgety choristers in white polos and navy slacks sit reluctantly at wooden desks, the purpose of the conceit not becoming clear until Part III, when Adam and Eve share an awkward slow dance on prom night. Most of the actual narration of Parts I and II was illustrated with video projections above the stage; some of these were easily predictable, such as classical illustrations of cosmology, or a massive explosion to signify the moment of creation. More inventive—if that’s the right word—were the sequences that showed plastic toy fishies swimming around in a glass tank, manipulated by the videographer’s hand, before being swallowed up by a (comparatively) gigantic hand puppet of a shark. The wizard action figurine bobbing around on the edge of the frame was presumably to be understood as a stand-in for God the Father, Creator of the Universe. These peculiar visuals at least amused with their sense of adolescent whimsy, though in the way of substance they offered little.

It was easy to forgive all of this nonsense, given the extraordinary level of the musical performance. From the very start of the overture, Honeck’s reading and the orchestra’s playing were vivid enough to stand without any visual aid. The rolling first chord of the oratorio landed with the force of proclamation, a cataclysmic event followed by creeping mystery as Haydn spills one progression over into the next, without resolution: darkness upon the face of the deep, indeed. The orchestra showed remarkable versatility throughout the performance providing power or breathless hush, wherever required. They presented soft morning light in the quiet warmth of the strings and mingled woodwinds, portraying the calm bliss of Paradise in the introduction to Part III. Then there was the fierce, even rough accompaniment to Raphael’s aria “Rollend in schäumend Wellen.” They achieved that rare balance that is so crucial in Haydn of nimble playing and freshness of sound, without ever feeling dainty in their approach.

These musicians have to be considered peers of any top orchestra in the country.

First-rate soloists filled the lead vocal parts for these performances. Werner Güra, taking the role of Uriel, sang with lyric grace and flashed a bright, pealing tone, a far cry from the reedy tenors we so often hear in oratorios. Alexander Elliott, appearing as Raphael and Adam, showed off a gorgeous chestnut baritone, smooth, velvety, with a perfectly hazy soft voice.

Even among such a strong trio, the young American soprano Rachele Gilmore was the clear standout as Gabriel and Eve. Gilmore is a coloratura soprano, but not the sort with a piercing or citric quality to her tone: her instrument has a more caramel color, bright and firm, but never biting. She employed that quality beautifully, crafting exquisite little turning phrases in her first aria, “Nun beut die Flur das frische Grün,” a celebration of the creation of the plants. Her most impressive work was “Auf starkem Fittiche,” her exaltation of the birds, in a breathlessly excited interpretation that capitalized on the easy shine of her upper range. (Alas, this was where Helfrich chose to take a petulant stand: like something out of a peta campaign, he showed a video montage of chickens being crammed into processing machines, and left Gilmore holding a kfc bucket as she finished the aria. Mustn’t let the audience leave with their sensibilities unbruised!)

Pittsburgh’s orchestra may not command the same respect as the traditional top tier of American orchestras, but that’s only because the public hasn’t caught on yet; the way they are playing under Manfred Honeck, these musicians have to be considered peers of any top orchestra in the country. Just last summer, the pso was the only American orchestra to perform at the Salzburg festival, which is among the biggest stages in the world for touring orchestras. One hopes that is a sign of things to come: recordings and fine concerts at home are well enough, but successful tours are essential in building an orchestra’s reputation. The future is bright in Pittsburgh, if only the musical world will give its orchestra a listen.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 6, on page 56
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