The cities of St. Louis, Missouri, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, are known for their similarities. From their flourishing settlement periods in the late 1700s to subsequent industry booms and diverse immigrant populations to parallel urban communities and signature architecture, these communities share many of the same historical comparisons. So when St. Louis native Cornell Iral Haynes, Jr., professionally known as Nelly, came to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s hometown, their collaboration just seemed to fit.
A noticeably younger — and louder — crowd showed up to Heinz Hall, packing the auditorium on a hot Thursday evening in the Cultural District and produced an atmosphere similar to an energetic pop concert, rather than a reserved classical symphony performance. They raised their plastic wine glasses to the stage and reminisced about the first time they heard “Country Grammar” played on mainstream radio in Pittsburgh almost 17 years ago.
Francesco Lecce-Chong, assistant conductor of the Orchestra, set the stage for a lively show as he jogged to his podium and acknowledged the musicians in their sophisticated black outfits, all perfectly aligned. They introduced the “non-regulars” to symphony magic with the recognizable Star Wars theme and quickly transitioned into the “Imperial March” as Nelly joined them at center stage. The crowd erupted as he stood there, looking slick and smooth, in a black button-down shirt, black trousers, dark sunglasses and bright diamond studs, a drastic contrast to his younger outfits of sports team jerseys and backwards baseball caps.
Taking a break from his European tour, Nelly asked everyone to embrace “music as an outlet in times of confusion.” As recent news reports about the mass killing in Nice, France came flooding in that evening, and still healing from multiple violent attacks across the United States, collectively we settled in to a peaceful nostalgia, together.
The ideal of family resonated throughout Heinz Hall with a palpable sense of longing, especially in songs like Nelly’s rendition of Thomas Rhett’s “Die a Happy Man,” accompanied beautifully by the sound of harmonic strings and soft lights. He also introduced his younger brother Lavell Webb, known by his stage name City Spud, who was able to join him on this tour. He paid a touching tribute to his grandmother when he sang “My Place” in perfect play with the orchestra, pausing a few times to wipe away a few emotional tears. Nelly’s aunts and uncles used to say that he “sounds like Marvin,” and we realized that this soft-spoken artist on stage, who has sold almost 30 million records, should also be remembered as a master craftsman and musical innovator and genre pioneer and community healer.
By the end of the night, everyone was standing, and many sang along to the catchy tunes of “Hot in Herre” and “Over and Over.” It all fit together in perfect whimsy, fanciful and odd, with our enthusiastic clapping and their active harmonies.
As Nelly left the stage for the final time, he said that he didn’t want to leave, as “the symphony makes me look real good.” The audience chanted his name, gave the orchestra a boisterous standing ovation, and danced in the aisles, wanting more. We were grateful to experience those moments of unison. We knew we needed it. And we thanked Nelly, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, City Spud, their band and Francesco Lecce-Chong for giving it to us so freely and authentically.