A Beginner's Guide to the PSO

Posted on February 21, 2020 by psu

Long time readers will know that I am a fan of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra even if my relationship with classical music as a whole is a bit more ambivalent.

You can’t go to as many PSO (and other) concerts as I have without occasionally wondering about how to get more “new” audience into the seats. As such, I have a few thoughts about that here.

As a disclaimer to start: there are a lot of historical, economic, and social reasons why people don’t go to see live orchestral music on a regular basis. I am not going to address any of that here. I am going to start with the thesis that this is the sort of thing more people should do, and try to give guidance to those who might have considered doing it but for various reasons have never gotten around to it.

The Big Picture

The Classical Music concert as an institution can be an intimidating, overly ritualistic, and stultifying musical experience seemingly designed to remove all emotional connection and energy from your body and soul. I get it. It can also be the best thing you have ever heard in your life. Classical music concerts are among the last places on Earth where you can actually hear instruments being played in empty space and never touched by microphones or amplifiers. As such they are also one of the few places where live performances truly sound better than their recorded counterparts possibly could. You have truly never heard any particular piece of orchestral music until you have heard it live in a good hall from a good seat. I’d like more people in the world to have experienced this first hand.

The Details

We all know the drill. Classical music is old music for old people played by old people in old halls in the pitch dark while you are made to wear uncomfortable clothes where you can’t clap at the wrong times and must otherwise sit in absolutely still silence and rapt attention lest you get the evil eye from some 85 year old man yelling at clouds. Why even bother? Well, again, there is that sound. But anyway…

Don’t believe me? Believe Anne Midgette, who until recently was the long time classical music writer for the Washington Post:

As for classical music itself, Midgette says there’s nothing wrong with it. “The music isn’t the problem, it’s the way we’re offering it.” Big, inflexible institutions take away the “oxygen and funds” from the smaller organizations, she argues, which typically have a stronger vision and take more risks. Audiences, she adds, prove time and again there’s no lack of interest. “I think the only reason orchestras are struggling is that not everybody wants to go and sit in a concert hall and have that experience. It’s not that people don’t want to hear Beethoven.”

I think we are on the right track here, but I personally sort of like a nice concert hall.


Also, I will point out that over the last couple of years I spent a bit of time seeing “pop” music shows (David Byrne, Rhiannon Giddens, Alison Krauss, and jazz at Alphabet City) in the city that played in much the same spaces and/or to audiences in much the same age range as the PSO plays in Heinz hall. I think the problem is not so much the space itself as what happens in it.

Like all shows classical music shows have structures and conventions that the fans understand, but which might be mysterious and confusing for beginners. Some of these conventions come from a place that is ultimately good (like wanting the hall to be quiet, so you can hear all the detail from the un-amplified instruments), but many also come from an unjustified sense of intellectual and cultural superiority that has built up over all the years of the symphony orchestra being an unquestioned pillar of artistic life in a major city. That superiority is gone now, but it has taken a long time for its side effects to slowly die away.

Anyway, for the people out there who might be curious, here is how the “serious” classical music concerts (not Pops) work.

Classical shows generally run about two hours with a fifteen minute intermission in the middle. While the range of the repertoire is pretty wide (300 years is a long time), most shows fall into a familiar pattern: a mix of shorter pieces to start, and big flashy longer pieces to end.

For reference, I will bucket the sorts of pieces you will hear into classes by length. This might seem odd, but it works for me.

  1. Short (5-10min) - Overtures, small “suites” or excerpts from larger pieces, most modern pieces and “new” music. Novelty, crossover, or the odd pop music arrangement generally fall into this category as well. Finally, 19th century dance and background music, like your waltzes and stuff land here.

  2. Medium (10-45min) - Longer modern pieces, many earlier works named “symphony” before the 19th century symphony forms got super bloated, occasional pieces involving vocals or a chorus, longer arrangements and suites, some full ballets. But, the bread and butter of this category is the instrumental concerto. These usually feature some internationally famous guest artist.

    Generally concerto soloists play either violin or piano. There are exceptions to this (flute, clarinet, viola, cello) but it doesn’t happen a lot. I personally find most of the concerto repertoire difficult to connect with. There are balance issues. There are structural issues. There is the fact that so much of the music can too easily sound like empty technical virtuosity. There is the fact that watching some poor woman in a giant dress shaped like a Christmas tree (the guys get to play in relatively comfortable suits. We all know why this is.) saw on a violin for half an hour is just tiring. Anyway … that’s how concertos work.

  3. Long (30min to an hour) - Full blown large scale 18th and 19th century “romantic” period works, especially the ones named symphonies. Also full ballets, concert performances of opera excerpts (rare), song cycles, church music. The big symphonies from Beethoven, Brahms, and all their buddies form the core of this repertoire and in many ways the cash cow back catalog for all orchestras everywhere for the last hundred or so years. Did you hear that we are in another Beethoven birthday year!?!

  4. Endurance (> 1 hour) - The biggest Mahler and Bruckner (I love this shit). Also stage performances of operas. Full sizes church works (like the Messiah). People who come to these shows generally know what they are getting themselves into.

I should make the obvious note here that the longer pieces are not single works that you play from end to end without stopping. They are more like an extended concept album from 1970s prog rock and are generally split into three or four separate parts or movements. Like everything else, these structures have evolved into many standard patterns which you can use to keep track of what is going on if you remember how they go. There are a few that show up the most. Here’s how they go:

  1. Fast, Slow, Fast.

  2. Fast, Slow, Medium Fast to Fast (Scherzo), Fast and flashier.

  3. Fast, not so Fast, Slow, Fast

  4. Long, Shorter, Fast, Slow/Fast/Loudest. The giant Mahler and Bruckner pieces change up the standards a bit, adding huge slow preludes to the opening movements and keeping you on your toes by having more than four or five sections. So stay attentive.

Apparently the greatest modern sin that you can commit at an orchestra concert is not keeping track of how many movements have gone by, or just getting too excited and showing any kind of appreciation for the piece before it is actually over. I myself have been guilty of glaring at early clappers, but only because they took me out of my zone before the slow movement.

My most important piece of advice for listening to classical music is to keep in mind that in almost every really great piece it’s the slow movements that form the emotional core of the music. The fast and loud music looks and sounds great but to me is mostly just about showing off. Which is fine. But the real music is in the slow stuff.

Most orchestra shows that you go to will have two or three shorter things in the first half and one or two longer things in the second half. The first half is also usually used for mindless filler, the already mentioned solo pieces, occasional feature pieces for members of the orchestra to show off, and all the “new music” that everyone thinks they should play and that you should listen to, but which no one really likes. There are of course happy and surprising exceptions in this last bucket once in a while.

If I have one overall gripe about the structure of the mainline classical music shows at the PSO it’s that they feel too long. It’s not that I mind the show going for about two hours or more. If the program is engaging and I’m locked in I’ll gladly stay in my seat that long. I loves me a great Bruckner 9, or Mahler 2 after all.

The problem is that such shows are relatively rare. But, for the sake of maintaining what people think of as the standard length of a concert, there is often a lot of filler. These are those short little pieces of fluffy nonsense that no one will remember five minutes into the first solo of the concerto that is the real point of the first half of the show. For a while at the PSO shows the band was playing small encore pieces from the tours after the the big piece at the end of the show, when everyone was in the mood for more. I think we should make this standard practice and move the filler from the start to the end.

What To Go See

In his excellent New Yorker article and even more excellent book Alex Ross speculates about how a potential new audience member might work up the gumption to see a favorite piece live. You should go read it, it contains all the advice that I will now give to you in an inferior way.

In the past I have believed that to maximize the probability that you will enjoy a PSO concert the best move is to go to a show where they are playing music you know. Second best is picking one at random and getting to know the music before hand. I think I still think this, but I’m a bit unsure. This passage from the Ross piece above where his intrepid new classical music fan goes to their first show is what makes me unsure:

I am now enough of a fan that I buy a twenty-five-dollar ticket to hear a famous orchestra play the “Eroica” live. It is not a very heroic experience. I feel dispirited from the moment I walk in the hall. My black jeans draw disapproving glances from men who seem to be modelling the Johnny Carson collection. I look around dubiously at the twenty shades of beige in which the hall is decorated. The music starts, but I find it hard to think of Beethoven’s detestation of all tyranny over the human mind when the man next to me is a dead ringer for my dentist. The assassination sequence in the first movement is less exciting when the musicians have no emotion on their faces. I cough; a thin man, reading a dog-eared score, glares at me. When the movement is about a minute from ending, an ancient woman creeps slowly up the aisle, a look of enormous dissatisfaction on her face, followed at a few paces by a blank-faced husband. Finally, three grand chords to finish, which the composer obviously intended to set off a roar of applause. I start to clap, but the man with the score glares again. One does not applaud in the midst of greatly great great music, even if the composer wants one to! Coughing, squirming, whispering, the crowd visibly suppresses its urge to express pleasure. It’s like mass anal retention. The slow tread of the Funeral March, or Marcia funebre, as everyone insists on calling it, begins. I start to feel that my newfound respect for the music is dragging along behind the hearse.

I don’t want you do to a lot of work to head into the show with high expectations, only to have that happen. Sadly, you never know.

What I am sure about is that you should not let other people (me, the PSO marketing staff, whatever) tell you what you should be interested in and what you should go see. I can only tell you what I tend to like the most.

First, as has already been established, I like shows without concertos. Also, while I personally love the giant and overwrought 19th century romantic and post-romantic symphonies, I realize that a 35min slow movement is not everyone’s thing. So I would suggest avoiding those as a first try move as well. I think the best shows that the PSO does are:

  1. The ones with more modern, but still well known pieces.

  2. The ones with shorter pieces. These are easier to concentrate on.

  3. The ones without singing, if you are not used to the singing style.

  4. The movie shows.

I am completely and un-ironically serious about the movie shows. While I have spent my entire life avoiding the Pops series (if classical music is old music for old people, the Pops is old pop music for old people), the movie shows are fantastic because they tend to be John Williams scores and John Williams is great. Also film music is one of the few places where a ton of people will hear an orchestra play music that:

  1. Was written very recently by someone who is probably still alive.

  2. Is designed to be enjoyed.

  3. Actually sounds good.

Besides the movie music my other suggestion is to seek out the Russian and central European composers from the late 19th and early 20th century. Mix in some Americans the British, and Sibelius and you have a great collection of stuff to look for. I’m talking about Bartok, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Dvorak, Martinu, Suk, Janaceck, Vaughan Williams, Arnold Bax, Malcom Arnold, David Diamond, John Adams, Jennifer Higdon, and of course, Sibelius. I think with this music you get to hear the orchestra play things and make sounds that you would never have considered possible, while still staying in musical frameworks that are concrete and in touch with a real emotional world.

The problem will be that the PSO does not play this music that much. But they do often enough for you to find a show or two like this every year. And in my experience these shows are almost always interesting and good. Along these lines another suggestion that I make to people is to go see the Chamber Music series at Carnegie Music Hall. These small groups are more intimate, less intimidating, and they also have more room for more experimental forms.

But again, this is just what I think, and might not be right for you. Maybe what I think of as tired and oversold warhorses will turn out to be more your thing. That’s fine too. The goal is to find something you want to hear live, because hearing it live will (hopefully) be great. I tend to think it’s easier to connect with music that happened more recently, but this is by no means a universal rule. And really, for all my posturing … the Beethoven 5th (or 3rd or 7th, or 6th) really slaps. You cannot go wrong.

Digression: Where to Sit

My favorite seats are at the front of Family Circle. Great blended sound with a lot detail and a good view of the whole stage. Decent leg room. The middle rows from around L to around R on the floor are also good. Just stay out from under ”the overhang”. The local paper ran a good overview a while back.

Final Thoughts

To sum up, don’t listen to me.

Spend some time on Spotify (or Apple Music, or YouTube) listening to things. Go hear things you like. Most of all, don’t be bothered by the old guy with the score glaring at you, the people in suits trying to be seen, or the folks yawning and coughing and generally not connecting at all. Remember that you have done your homework and you have as much of a right to be there, and as much of an intellectual right to have an opinion on the experience, as anyone else in the room.

Do not be intimidated by the pretentious suits, the grumpy old people, and the exhausting air of general self-importance that tends to hang over these shows. The classical music performance environment can genuinely seem like a machine specifically designed to keep you from making achieving any kind of real emotional attachment to what is being played on stage, but it doesn’t have to be. I think if you ignore it it will go away, and on the best nights you always realize that it’s just a music show and the joy and rapture can just wash over you.

Actual Final Thoughts

After I originally posted this I realized I forgot about something that the PSO has been doing just in the last couple of years that is super good for newer audience members. On many nights after the main show they will do a short, smaller chamber performance in Heinz Hall for whoever feels like staying an extra twenty minutes to see it.

It would not be hyperbolic to say that some of the most interesting music of the year happens in these post-concert performances. They play stuff you don’t get to hear a lot, and you also get to move up closer to the performers and really engage with them face to face. One time the guest conductor even played clarinet in one of these pieces. That was dope.

So anyway, stick around for these. You will not regret it.