5 Random Thoughts from a Random Night at the Symphony – Justin Kownacki

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.

2 thoughts on “5 Random Thoughts from a Random Night at the Symphony – Justin Kownacki”

  • When a conductor cancels, there are a few different ways to approach replacement. One factor is the program, which we generally try to keep intact. But if a potential replacement conductor does not know a piece on the program, we may change it or look for someone else. Time is another factor. Do you have two months, two weeks, or two days until the first rehearsal? The biggest factor is availability. We book conductors more than a year in advance, and so do all other orchestras, which means very few are available on short notice. To find the ones that are available, we call the agents who represent artists and conductors. A single agent might represent ten conductors, and one call can tell you if any of those ten are available, know the repertoire, etc. If they are foreign and need a visa on short notice, forget about it, that process takes months. If someone is available but you don’t know anything about them, you might call other orchestras where they have appeared and ask questions about their strengths and weaknesses. After a lot of phone calls you pretty much know who is available and what your options are. In this case, a conductor of quality, Mr. Lintu. had the misfortune of having a tour with a European orchestra cancelled for financial reasons, so he found himself with three weeks free. And what did he do in those three weeks? Replace cancelling conductors in Houston, Washington, and Pittsburgh. The process has many other considerations (who is the soloist, for example), but that’s it in a nutshell.
    Robert Moir
    Vice President of Artistic Planning

  • Wow – thanks for all that insight, Robert! I suspected there were a lot of variables involved in hiring a substitute conductor, but I had no idea that the process was so complex (though, oddly, logical). And I hadn’t even thought about the visa issue…
    I’m sorry to hear Mr. Lintu’s previous engagement was cancelled, but I’m glad he was able to solve the same problem for three different orchestras — and he was a pleasure to watch!

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