Considering the size of the city it inhabits (roughly 300,000), the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra can justly claim to being one of the best orchestras, pound-for-pound, in America, if not the world. Founded in 1896, the PSO has always enjoyed a high standard of musicianship, benefiting from a string of Music Directors that would be the envy of almost any orchestra: from Fritz Reiner and William Steinberg in its early days, to more recent leaders like Lorin Maazel and Mariss Jansons. No doubt these conductors were drawn to the Steel City more for the paycheck than the Primanti's, but all that industrial money has clearly paid off.
The PSO sounded in good shape when I saw them Sunday afternoon at Heinz Hall: a converted movie palace in downtown Pittsburgh that's served as their home since 1971. Much of the credit goes to their new music director, Manfred Honeck: a native of Vienna who spent 10 years playing violin in the Vienna Philharmonic and has spent the past 20 years engaged in various conducting gigs throughout Europe.
Honeck clearly has a soft spot for the music of his hometown, as was in evidence on Sunday's program, which paired violin concertos by Haydn and Mozart with Mahler's 4th symphony. The Haydn and Mozart were played by Gil Shaham: a fluent and ebullient violinist who could barely contain himself, smiling with his mouth wide open during the intervals. The chamber-sized orchestra played with grace and subtlety, sounding like a Konditorei confection. Mahler's 4th is probably the most "classical" of his nine gargantuan symphonies, lasting a mere 55 minutes and using only a single singer (soprano Sunhae Im) in the finale. There were some issues with balance and tempo throughout, but Honeck was thoughtful in his approach - particularly in the soft third movement, which he drew out with an almost unbearable tension. The sort of interpretation that tajkes buckets of confidence - or, rather, familiarity.