You don’t get to see a long chain of percussion instruments lining the front of the Heinz Hall stage every day.
Then again, you don’t get to hear Stewart Copeland, the former drummer of the rock band The Police, perform with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra every day. In the post-Police era, Mr. Copeland has composed symphonic works, film scores (“Wall Street” and “Rumble Fish” among them) and music from other genres.
As one of the four composer-performers featured in the current PSO season, Mr. Copeland joined the symphony and conductor Marcelo Lehninger Friday night for the world premiere of “The Tyrant’s Crush,” his concerto for drum set and percussion. In addition to Mr. Copeland on drums, the three-movement work showcased the terrific PSO percussion and timpani sections. Percussionists Andy Ream-er, Chris Allen and Jeremy Branson joined Mr. Copeland out front, and principal timpanist Ed Stephan played the timpani in their usual spot. The work featured a large percussion setup of various mallet instruments, drums, and auxiliary percussion instruments, along with a large orchestra.
“The Tyrant’s Crush,” a programmatic piece, follows the rise and fall of a dictatorship — a theme familiar to the composer, who grew up in the Middle East and whose father worked for the CIA. The plot did not appear to be particularly literal, and three epigraphs in the score (and program notes) abstractly describe the scenario of the work.
It was no surprise that rhythm was the main force driving the piece — not only for the soloists, but also for the whole orchestra — and despite the storyline, it had an optimistic, cinematic quality. The percussionists had to migrate among a wild display of instruments, but they managed to ground the visual spectacle with serious skill. (Anybody who thinks playing the triangle is easy should hear the triangle trio in the opening movement.) Mr. Copeland, who is obviously a tremendous drummer, remained locked into the groove, threw in his own riffs and, sitting to the side, did not draw any more attention to himself than the other soloists.
But perhaps that became the work’s shortcoming. A concerto ought to showcase the instruments, but with so many solo parts sharing the spotlight, the piece seemed to undermine itself, unclear about where musical attention should be paid. And the melodies didn’t help focus it. Despite some appealing textures and virtuosic solos, it was hard to follow the musical storyline.
The second half centered on Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1 and Mr. Lehninger, the music director of the New West Symphony in California. The concert marked the Brazilian-born conductor’s first appearance with the PSO.
Shostakovich’s work is one of the most intrepid first symphonies in the canon, with its audacious solos, uninhibited character and no-holds-barred treatment of themes. Mr. Lehninger embraced the score’s tenaciousness. The orchestra responded with equal verve, evidenced by the burnished tone of the full orchestra and vivid section playing. (Following the concerto, the percussionists and timpanist returned for the second half and were dazzling.)
On the margin, Mr. Lehninger’s interpretation and tempos could be curious. The unyielding speed of the opening movement, for example, glossed over details hidden in the transitions among the themes. Other moments, such as principal oboist Cynthia Koledo DeAlmeida’s unusually quiet solo in the third movement, showed how such interpretive choices could succeed.