To say that you need to experience the glory and emotion that is the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s performance of The Sleeping Beauty this weekend is a poor and almost indescribable understatement. Russian and Scottish influences beautifully compete for your senses as the audience is enveloped into the lives and masterpieces of Prokofiev, MacMillan, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff.
My husband, Michael, and I haven’t stepped into the great Heinz Hall since last July, where we flew through Hogwarts on an adventure with “The Magical Music of Harry Potter” and the symphony musicians. Since then, a lot has happened. As newlyweds we spent a week in Jamaica, sipping on piña coladas and relaxing on rafts in calm blue-green waters. A few months later, we announced the joyous expansion of our little family and the anticipation of our first child, a son. And, on the 600 block of Penn Avenue in the Cultural District of Pittsburgh, the music stopped. Fast forward to a white and wintry Friday evening in February, and we were both excited to find our seats and settle in to a familiar environment. Secretly I wanted our baby, quickly growing inside me, to hear the enchanting classical foundation that the symphony has become for us.
As the lights dimmed and the orchestra grew quiet after tuning, we watched a brief on-screen introduction into the night’s musical menu. I could already feel my belly flutter, and I smiled.
Once we sprinted into Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, I inched ever-so-slightly forward to see conductor Manfred Honeck’s eyebrows furl at every progression. Even the soles of his heels seemed animated. After the third of four movements, he exhaled, content and proud. The musicians, dressed in classic black, found their rhythm immediately, whether the notes demanded a subdued isolation or incremental space to grow. Through the music, I imagined young gazelles sprinting through a spring forest at dawn, the entrance of an emperor or presentation of new heritage, even the flight of Tinkerbell in a land of magic and mystery.
Then came Veni, Veni, Emmanuel. I not-so-secretly anticipated this performance for its spiritual undertones, Scottish composition and familiar chorus. Preparing for this piece on stage created quite a noticeable buzz. Nearly 40 different percussion instruments commanded our attention, front and center. Soloist Colin Currie, Maestro Honeck and the orchestra demanded our attention for 30 continuous minutes of one uninterrupted movement, complementing each other through musical tension and a melody so intricate that it almost felt impossibly surreal. I closed my eyes, allowed a wave of visceral emotions to envelop me, and sensed a Russian fairy tale transposed onto Biblical contexts. As the orchestral pupils chimed, lonely, Currie climbed the imaginary Cathedral stairs to end the movement that brought us to our feet and composer Sir James MacMillan to the stage.
After intermission guest concertmaster Alexi Kenney and a full orchestra traveled through Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty seamlessly and with great emotion. We heard triumphant, short bursts, swift, sweeping melodies, soft lullabies, booming notes and swaying solos. Kenney’s artistic execution of the violin as an instrumental extension of his fingers and soul was as breathtaking as it was perfect.
We decided to stay a little longer, and we are so thankful we did. It is obvious that the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra loves its patrons and its city. Rachmaninoff’s post-concert trio was intimately connected to its audience, performers and progression. I grinned when I realized how romantic and dramatic Russian music can translate through Dimitri’s piano chords, Jennifer’s string manipulation and Mikhail’s energy.
As we left Heinz Hall and headed home, I looked at my husband, thought of our son, and wondered how soon it would be before we were back at this place. I like to think of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra as our musical home, a sanctuary for culture, passion and a shared artistic pulse. I hope and encourage you to find this kind of community here, too.