On a whim, my girlfriend (Ann) and I decided to attend the Symphony on Friday night. I say "on a whim" because neither of us were familiar with any of the evening's selections, making this the first night we'd be entrusting our ears to the PSO based solely on the presumption that any of their performances must be fulfilling regardless of our prior opinions of the music involved.
And we were right. But we also made several new observations along the way, including:
* Being on time is NOT overrated. We weren't able to pull ourselves away from the Lawrenceville UnBlurred gallery crawl in time to find easy parking before the show, so we were a few minutes late to the PSO performance. In case you've never arrived late to the Symphony, here's what happens: they allow you to watch from the entryway to the seating area, but you must remain standing (and out of the seated patrons' sightlines) until the conclusion of the first piece, at which time you can seat yourself (and irritate the people who were there on time. Sorry, folks).
* Is there a close-knit group of conductors on Facebook? PSO conductor Manfred Honeck wasn't slated to lead the orchestra that night, and guest conductor Charles Dutoit had taken ill, so Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu stepped in under what I presume — considering that Lintu's bio was printed on a separate page, and then tucked into the program guide — was very short notice. Which made us wonder: what's the process for finding a backup conductor in an emergency? Is there an exclusive Rolodex somewhere that Symphony management can turn to in times of crisis? (And do they book their flights on LastMinute.com?)
* Talent is not always best-showcased in difficulty. The evening's soloist was 21 year-old Chinese piano prodigy Yuja Wang, whose skills are quite evident. But the piece she played — Prokofiev's Concerto No. 2 in G minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 16 — was notoriously obtuse in its day, and its demanding and occasionally hostile composition isn't something I'm used to hearing at the symphony. Kudos to the PSO for exposing me to music that forced me to evaluate it differently from most works they choose, but I'll admit, it made appreciating Wang's talents much more difficult because I was unable to base it against a more traditional frame of reference for "good piano playing."
* Sometimes, being unfamiliar with the music is liberating. Debussy's Le Mer closed the performance, and it was both beautiful and powerful. It was also strangely comforting to enjoy a performance in which I not only had zero preconceptions about the piece in question, but also to learn (from the program notes) that Le Mer has no "story," which I often feel compelled to seek out when listening to works whose reference points I'm aware of.
* The symphony is theatre without the wings. Watching the individual musicians wait patiently for their moment to shine — a moment that may only last for a single note — I realize that playing in an orchestra is similar to acting on stage, but without the benefit of an "off-stage" area. Thus, the audience gets to witness all the musicians all the time, and see how each of them reacts to, follows along with, and occasionally is amazed by the others. Actors are afforded relative privacy where they can focus their creative energies; musicians in the symphony must rise to the occasion without that luxury.
After the show, we took a chance on a new restaurant that's only been open for a week: Melange (located, in true Pittsburgh direction-giving style, "where Frenchy's used to be"). Although we popped in late in the evening, the staff accommodated our need for an appetizer, salad, dessert and drinks. And while the decor is still too new to feel truly inviting — much like a new car, Melange needs a few bumps and scratches to feel "comfortable" to the touch — the saganaki (flaming cheese soaked in brandy) was amazing and the flan was fabulous. As if we needed any more reinforcement that dabbling in the unknown can yield rich rewards.