One of the great pleasures of being able to see the PSO on a regular basis is that first concert after the long summer layoff. What happens to your brain when you have not heard the band live for a while is that it forgets what it is like when that sound hits you in the face for the first time in a long time. It is impossible to convey exactly how good 90-100 of the best musicians in the world all playing as a single unit sounds, but it’s like nothing else in the world.
Of course, in Pittsburgh this year the layoff was a bit longer than normal because of a two month strike by the musicians against the management team of the PSO. I am not really qualified to have an opinion on the nature of orchestra management. I don’t know anything about business, much less the non-profit business, much less the business of non-profits that run institutions that are seen by the culture at large as almost completely irrelevant and outdated dinosaurs. I just program computers. However, in the spirit of this year’s election (which proved, if nothing else, that if you are a loud-mouthed asshole you don’t have to be qualified or competent at anything to gain high office), I do have one short thought about the whole thing.
I found it confusing. I found it confusing that a short year or so after bringing in new people to run the PSO suddenly we find that the institution is in the midst of an existential financial crisis. I find it confusing that management took this “last, best and final” offer position from the beginning when they had to know they’d have to walk it back eventually. And then they did. I find it confusing that the part of the PSO organization whose job it is to do nothing but outbound marketing and PR was so bad at doing outbound marketing and PR for their case. In particular, I wonder if what they gained in the contract was worth losing the trust and good will of the core audience. Oh well, life goes on.
So the orchestra took the stage last night, and we all got that first glorious blast of the full band playing in the hall after a long layoff. And it was great. Even if all they were playing was the Star Spangled Banner. They play this tune every year when the season starts, and it is normally a bit of a routine ritual, but this year I felt like when the trumpet hit that high note near the end the entire audience melted into the little puddle of jello. Even I did a little, and I am usually a quite jaded and cynical concert goer. Not this night.
Next they played the Overture to Ruslan and Ludmila by Mikhail Glinka. This is the sort of flashy bon-bon that makes jaded and cynical concert goer roll their eyes and take a nap until the real music starts. But again, not this night. Probably it was just the emotion of the moment, but the band and the audience just seemed to be locked in. The ensemble, the tone, the attention to every little detail, no matter how shallow, was all there. As always, we had all forgotten what the band can sound like until it was right in front of our faces to remind us.
Next was a solo piece featuring the long time principal oboe Cynthia Koledo DeAlmeida. She was the subject of my favorite photo from the strike which showed her walking down Penn Ave with a sign that read “I’d rather be making oboe reeds” and appearing to give the side eye to the new CEO. There were two highlights to the performance of “Gabriel’s Oboe”. The first was the small child who, unfortunately, had to be removed from the hall while clearly yelling “no good, no good” in Mandarin. From the lobby. The second was when, during a break in her part DeAlmeida looked back at the orchestra and just appeared to stand and listen for a few seconds, taking it all in like the rest of us. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but she seemed as mesmerized as the audience.
Finally, on any normal night the jaded and cynical concert goer might approach the two big pieces of the night, the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and the Dvorak 9th with a bit of cautious ennui. Both are pretty high up on the war horse scale (a 2012 review of a PSO performance of the Dvorak in the Post Gazette even said as much). However, as I have said, this was not any normal night. Former concert master Noah Bendix-Balgley back was in town to play the concerto, which added yet another layer of sympathetic audience energy to the performance. But I think even without this the performance was technically and musically superb. The conductor, orchestra, soloist and audience just seemed perfectly in sync for the whole piece. And for once the various audience members who needed to applaud between movements were fully justified in their actions.
As good as the Tchaikovsky was, I was not prepared for the Dvorak even though I was in the audience for that 2012 performance which at the time I thought was the best I’d heard from the PSO in years. Well, they did it again, right down to the absolute emotional destruction of the solos (especially the english horn) in the Largo. For once the between movement clappers applauded for a slow movement, and I even tossed in a few. This was a triumphant return for the best band in the city. So much so that it replaces that concert in 2012 as the best performance I’ve heard in the city in the last few years.
During the strike I had spent some time trying to convince myself that the symphony orchestra was the sort of institution whose time had passed. Perhaps, I thought, we classical music fans needed to face the reality of a shrinking audience for the “product” and learn to live with smaller bands, chamber music and smaller more nimble “indie” outfits. I still think this might be true, but as always the first show back has reminded me that there is no sound on Earth like this orchestra going full blast and then stopping on a dime, as if controlled by one mind, for that short interlude in Dvorak finale. There is nothing better than the perfect blend of the strings (again, at the end of the Dvorak), or the sweet metallic ring of the brass. Dinosaur or not, this is an organization that we should support and appreciate until the ugliness of the real world finally comes to take it away. And it will be too bad when that day comes because then we’ll never be able watch as first timers are astounded by a transcendent performance of the Dvorak 9th and say to them in our heads “you should come back, it’s always this good.”