When I first heard that the Honors Program was returning to the symphony this year, I remembered what an amazing experience the symphony had been last March. I thought to myself, “There’s no way they can top Sebelius.” But, I noticed that the concert this year was focused on Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin. While I will be the first to admit that I am no classical music expert nor do I purport to be more than a casual listener while I study, I vividly remembered Gershwin from my elementary school days. I had a music teacher who was passionate about Gershwin, and from my perspective, passion tends to be memorable. So, I had high hopes as I awaited this year’s concert.
Finally, the day came and it was in the week or two that tend to line up with midterms. Talk to any college student during midterms and they’ll tell you that the last thing they want to do is take a night off.
The trip fell on a beautiful Friday afternoon. Despite being in late February, the temperatures were in the high 50s/low 60s and there were few clouds to be seen. The sun shone, and it was a beautiful day to take a drive to Pittsburgh. When we arrived at Heinz Hall we were ushered into the lobby to meet our tour guide and begin our tour. We were greeted with the same familiar face that had shown us around the hall in 2016. As it was my second time in Heinz Hall, I noticed new things. While I still stood in awe of the Titanic-like grand staircase and the intricate detail of the gold leaf and marble, I noticed the various themes in different parts of the hall. The lobby maintained the intricate detail on a dark, almost black, material on the walls. White tile occupied the floors, changing the ambience from the rest of the hall’s red carpet. The tables in the lobby were dark and matched with dark chairs that had red fabric coverings. Upstairs, the theme appeared to change to white and gold pairings.
On our last trip, we had briefly ventured out to the patio, but it had been too cold to do much else but think about how cold we were and wonder when we were going to go back inside. This year, however, the beautiful weather allowed us to take in the scene. The skyscrapers of Pittsburgh on two sides, the hall behind us. The patio was large enough, though, to fool you into thinking just briefly that maybe you weren’t in a city. Maybe we could be anywhere. But, the familiar sounds of the city – the cars flying by, the horns blaring every once in a while – were still present in the background. A statue still stood in the back of the patio, closest to the city street, appearing like a flame coming to lick the edges of an object that could be placed in its middle.
We went back inside and up the grand staircase. Our guide pointed out the faces that peeked at you from the chandelier, all made of gold. She talked about how when the Hall was built, gold was significantly cheaper than it is in 2017. She discussed how difficult it would be to build a hall like Heinz today because the cost would be so much more. It was fascinating to learn that the theater had once had a much larger capacity and played movies instead of having concerts; although the renovations and restoration that the symphony had conducted in order to play in the Hall made the venue appear as though it had always been destined to have symphony concerts.
We went for a brief moment into the actual space where we would sit and listen to the music. We headed back downstairs and went backstage. Backstage was busier than I remembered from the previous year. More musicians walked around in a flurry, moving from the stage to the back or from behind the stage to on it. More stage hands prepared for the concert. They smiled as they watched the looks of awe we had as we took in the grand theater from the perspective of the stage, as if they didn’t always think of how impressive it all was. A few of the musicians sat on stage practicing or warming up. They made even basic scales sound impressive. When we left backstage, we headed to one of the premier boxes, right by the stage. From that close, one could almost see the music the musicians were reading.
At this point, the tour portion of our evening was complete, and we met with one of the musicians of the symphony, Victoria Luperi, a clarinetist originally from Argentina. My experience listening to her speak was only made better by the fact that I had been able to buy coffee. And so I was able to enjoy two of my favorite things: coffee and someone talking about their passion. We were paired with a group of local high school students. Her passion for her craft was obvious from the glimmer in her eyes, the smile on her face when she talked about music, and the excitement in her voice. Her story of how she began through the encouragement of a musician in her hometown was probably the best example of her passion: when she picked it up she just knew she was meant to play it. She then gave us a quick preview of her solo in Rhapsody in Blue, an incredible few seconds of what we would soon hear with the full orchestra. She continued to discuss her experiences and even answered questions from students of both groups. Time seemed to fly through this discussion, and even she seemed surprised when she was told it was only 30 minutes until the performance, and the talk was over.
After she spoke, we explored for a few brief minutes and then found our way to our seats. The musicians were mostly on the stage, playing their scales and warm-ups as they anxiously waited to play their first pieces. Finally, the moment we were awaiting arrived: the lights dimmed and the concert master stepped onto the stage. They took a moment to settle and then the music began.
The first song felt like a dream. Light melodies filled the room. Even though I never felt like I couldn’t hear the music, it seemed like they found a way to make it quiet enough that it was just above that threshold where we would say, “I can’t quite hear.” Later, when the music got louder and fast-paced, I was surprised that while some parts were much louder, most of the music seemed to be at this same volume. Despite the volume seeming consistent, no matter what the music sounded like, I felt like the music was just gently touching my skin, remaining light in the air. Almost as though if you let your mind wander for just a second, you’d miss something incredibly important.
As much as I enjoyed that song though, I was thrilled at the idea of listening to Rhapsody in Blue. They brought out a special pianist for the performance. Rhapsody started with this beautiful solo from the clarinet, with the bass gently accompanying it after a few seconds. I remember thinking how it felt like someone just casually walking down the road, taking in the sights. Almost like we were, we were taking in the sights of the music hall. As the concerto continues, the song builds and gets more exciting and again it felt almost like my experience at the hall: the buildup to the evening, and then the anticipation of the concert after the tour. At the climax of the song, a complete change to the music surprised me and continued to leave me impressed with the way these musicians commanded the piece. The next portion of Rhapsody is a piece that sounds a little bit more like classical music with just a little jazz, whereas I think the rest of the piece sounds more like jazz with a little bit of classical music. It’s full of energy and excitement, like it could be the soundtrack for the most exciting day of your life. The last few minutes of the piece never quite match the vigor of those few minutes, as if they know they could never top it. That doesn’t mean the last few minutes weren’t impressive, because they were. They begin to heavily favor the pianist, and the skill required to play quickly and with so many different themes is amazing to witness. The piece ends in another set that reminds me of the end of a great day, where the promise of a new one remains, but the main excitement is over. And then thinking of that great day leads to memories of it, which led to a brief reprise of the beginning of the concerto. It’s a piece that really is only done justice by a live orchestra.
At this point in the evening, I didn’t think my night could get any better, but it did. The pianist gave an encore at the end of his Rhapsody in Blue performance, this time showing off his prowess in Scenes of an Italian Restaurant, a Billy Joel song. I grew up in a house with parents who loved Billy Joel, so much that my middle name stems from one of his other songs. So, while the song was instrumental, I could be seen during the performance mouthing the words I knew belonged as he played.
The final song of the performance, some of the dance themes from West Side Story, was a fascinating way to listen to a musical that so many know. While I like a variety of musicals, I was not familiar with West Side Story, and so the music was a whole new experience for me.
After the concert, we headed back to the streets of Pittsburgh to get back to our transportation and return to Saint Vincent. On our way, however, I appreciated the spontaneity of a quick trip to a pizza shop that had to-go slices. We had been so focused on the concert throughout the night that we had not thought of how long it had been since we had eaten.