The Big Picture

Saturday night was symphony night! The best part about living in the environs of downtown Pittsburgh is the proximity to Heinz Hall, home of the truly world-class Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Thus, your lucky author regularly finds himself taking the fifteen-minute stroll along Fifth Avenue and presenting his ticket for the Star Trek phasers stationed at the doors on Penn and 6th to hear this wonderful orchestra perform.

On January 31st, the symphonic soupe du jour was Khachaturian and Mussorgsky, served up by guest conductor Krzysztof Urbanski.

Concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley performed the Violin Concerto by Aram Khachaturian, the prominent Armenian composer. In the concerto, Khachaturian poured out an intense creative energy, evident from the seemingly ceaseless flow of melody and musical themes, not to mention the nearly coffee-table-book thickness of the orchestral string parts. Bendix-Balgley tackled the concerto with characteristic brilliance, emphasizing contrasts in the dance-like rhythms in the piece while producing complexities of tone that carried to the far reaches of the hall.

After intermission, Ravel’s colorful orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition took center stage. The “Behind the Notes” presentation by Jim Cunningham before the full performance offered some enthusiastic pointers into the history of the piece. In fact, the concert briefly transformed into a live-action orchestration lesson, alternating between excerpts of Mussorgsky’s 1874 piano composition and Ravel’s 1923 orchestral adaptation.

The ensuing full performance of the orchestral work was a special treat. Listening to each “picture” unfold through time, interspersed by the familiar “promenades”, one can experience the emotions as well as the curiosities of a tour through an artist’s gallery. As each musical piece transitions smoothly into the next—the movements are performed attacca—I could imagine myself doubling back for a second look at a previous sketch or glancing ahead at a detail in the next painting. As the promenade theme is subsumed into the final “Great Gate of Kiev” movement, Mussorgsky completes this reflective, emotional journey.


Can’t get enough of Pictures? I am pleased to mention that Duquesne University’s Symphony Orchestra will perform the work on Sunday, February 15th at 7:30pm at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland. As a violinist, it’s particularly fun to play the quirky interjections and quick character changes of the piece. See you there!


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Sean and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley at Heinz Hall

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