By Andrew Druckenbrod, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A debut of an unknown musician in a concert hall is the closest classical music gets to a tabula rasa. Appropriately, all I left with was a blank tablet. During conductor Christoph König ‘s fabulous first appearance leading the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra , I was too wrapped up in his command of Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 to remember to jot my thoughts down. Stepping in for Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos on Friday night at Heinz Hall, Mr. König, the Dresden-born conductor, impressed before he even took the stage. It’s always a good sign when a last-minute substitute doesn’t alter the original program. It may mean he knows the repertoire — Mr. König has been conducting Brahms’ Second — or it may mean he has the artistic heft to take on anything coming his way. A combination of both would seem to be the case with Mr. König. He just debuted with the Houston Symphony, and already there was a call to consider him a successor to music director Hans Graf. I don’t want to get carried away; he has room to grow. But here was a substitute who didn’t just take the reins of our thoroughbred orchestra, but also led it his way from the beginning. In two works by Prokofiev, Mr. König was firm but led with nuance. “Classical Symphony” danced about, with winning moments such as the first violins’ toy-violin timbre in the second theme of the opening movement or the clarity with which the intriguing harmonies coalesce and build. The Soviet composer’s frenetic Piano Concerto No. 3 brought Venezuela-born pianist Gabriela Montero to the bench. The hazy timbre she culled from the piano (a percussion instrument, mind you) in the quieter and mysterious moments satisfied. The more accented and angular music didn’t quite have that dagger point that characterizes the music. She was just too kind to really jolt the piano as the work needs. As is her trademark for encores, Ms. Montero improvised on a theme suggested by the audience (“One Enchanted Evening”). This is wonderfully bold (although her actual improv was a bit straight-forward) and a service telling audiences about the largely forgotten role of improvisation in classical music. Mr. König was an apt partner there, but the Brahms showed his full range. Opening with a slow, yet not deliberate tempo, with the main theme opening up like a flower in a time-lapse photo sequence: dramatic, yet soft-textured and delicate. His gentle handing of the lullaby character of the second theme, then, followed that visual in reverse as the flower closed into slumber of night. The second movement was draped in velvet, though not without a stout cadence near the end. The finale was appropriately boisterous. In this pastorale work, he displayed a calm demeanor. But the key to any person on the Pittsburgh podium is creating space for the musicians to thrive. He did that, too, whether individually in the case of horn player William Caballero, or in sections, such as the cellos and basses.
Here was a talent who made the most of his circumstances and hopefully will return sooner rather than later.
Christoph König conducts the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in a programme of Rachmaninov Symphony No. 2, Mussorgsky Scherzo in B-flat Major (Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Premiere, and Chopin Piano Concerto No. 2, featuring the fabulously gifted 2010 Chopin Competition winner Yulianna Avdeeva. More info .