I first saw The Graduate when I was 17, 25 years after it made “Plastics” a catchphrase for the 1960s zeitgeist. I loved the movie. I loved Mrs. Robinson’s elegant cynicism, Benjamin’s dumbfounded naivete and Elaine’s sweet nonchalance. I most loved the movie for the music it brought me: “Sounds of Silence.” “Scarborough Fair.” “April Come She Will.” I got the soundtrack. I got Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits. I made mixtapes. It was the early ’90s.
Fast forward another 25 years or so, and I jumped at the chance to see the Pittsburgh Symphony PNC Pops presentation of The Sounds of Simon & Garfunkel, which, I figured, might be the only chance I’d ever have to hear their music live. The show opened with a cinematic, Rogers-and-Hammerstein-style theater overture mashing up their greatest hits: if “Sounds of Silence” felt a bit jarring with a cheerful, upbeat tempo, the go-go tambourine in “Mrs. Robinson” set the tone for the rest of the show.
Conductor Michael Krajewski clearly loves his subject matter, introducing numbers and peppering the evening with facts and a charming, self-effacing humor. Immediately following the overture, the stars of the night entered: AJ Swearingen, the Paul Simon of the duo, and Jonathan Beedle, who provided the sweet tenor of Art Garfunkel. They pay tribute to Simon & Garfunkel, but they’re no tribute band. Swearingen is a tall, handsome guitar player with a voice more Dave Alvin than Paul Simon, and visually, Beedle reminded me of Tom Smothers in a classic v-neck sweater.
They opened with “Homeward Bound,” a perfect origin point: we’re all heading home tonight, they sang, back in place and time to the basement rec room, lying on the beanbags with lights low, listening to the low hiss of a turntable as it spins out songs worth listening to again and again. Never have I been more aware of how spare Simon & Garfunkel’s music sounds when the orchestra swelled behind them; like the earlier rendition of “Sounds of Silence,” it felt a bit jarring before settling in. That juxtaposition between the richness of the orchestra and the simplicity of the folk music played out through the evening.
Picking up from home, we headed out to the street with “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feeling Groovy),” a song dear to my heart, since I lived nearly underneath that very bridge in New York 20 years ago. Tech sent a sunshine glow over the orchestra, the sweet strings and light steps sending us on a walk in the park. “All I Have to Do is Dream” came next, a nice tribute to The Everly Brothers, one of Simon & Garfunkel’s biggest early influences.
“I Am A Rock” followed, with the driving drums pushing forward the beat. This was the only song that fell a bit flat for me. The underlying anger and passion of the song shifted into a jolly singalong; the orchestral arrangement came close to a satisfying crescendo, but never quite broke through for me.
Next, the orchestra rested their instruments, and Swearingen and Beedle performed “The Sounds of Silence” as it was originally recorded: with only a guitar, and no accompaniment. The ultimate effect highlighted the simple power of two voices and haunting lyrics.
“Cecilia” marched in next, military drums replacing the claps and snaps of the original. (Side note: I invited a friend and only remembered during this song that her two-year-old daughter’s name is Cecilia. Maybe I remembered unconsciously when I invited her.) Swearingen moved on to tell a childhood story about his father turning up the volume on “Keep the Customer Satisfied” so the brass section could be heard down the block, and asked Krajewski to crank it up. The brass section cranked it up: the ba-ba-da-da-da-da filled the hall.
The first act closed with a “NaNa Medley,” a singalong tribute to the phrase that was so popular during Simon & Garfunkel’s heyday. Krajewski urged us to sing along with a deadpan recitation of the lyrics we’d be expected to sing: “Na-na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na. Na-na-na-na.” If you haven’t heard the great Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra play “Land of 1000 Dances” like the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and Memphis Horns decided to jam with Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, you haven’t lived.
The second act opened with a delightful story revealing the inspiration for the line “I can call you Betty/ and Betty when you call me/ you can call me Al.” The “Paul Simon in Concert (Medley)” showcased the full range of Simon’s long solo career. My favorites included the the brass section’s rapturous “You Can Call Me Al” (has there ever been a more joyful opening to a pop song?) and, later, a rollicking, driving “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” The medley closed the circle with a Western, Aaron-Copland-like “You Can Call Me Al.” Krajewski took to the piano for “All I Know” in a rendition as haunting and ethereal as Art Garfunkel’s voice.
The singing duo returned to the stage with “Hazy Shade of Winter,” which, for me, was a highlight of the show. I grew up listening to The Bangles’ hard-driving rock version, and the arrangement walked the line between Simon & Garfunkel’s original and the later full-rock cover. The brass section’s Salvation Army band called out as a perfect, Burt-Bacharach compliment to the strings. The singers, too, felt the energy — “A Hazy Shade of Winter” more than made up for what “I Am A Rock” lacked in the first act.
Next, we moved on to real Aaron Copland; how else would we open “America”? The strings soared as the singers painted word-pictures of long highways, buses and gabardine suits. “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” followed, without accompaniment from the symphony. The absence of the harpsichord and vocalizations — just the two-part harmony and guitar — turned the song into a hymn.
The reverent feel continued with the lovely strings in “Old Friends/Bookends” and reached a crescendo with “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” accompanied by Krajewski on the piano. Beedle’s sweet voice rode the swell of the symphony in an extraordinary benediction, and Spector’s Wall of Sound rose to fill the hall with hope.
From that high point the program shifted to a swinging version of “Mrs. Robinson,” the musicians bathed in a fiery, lurid orange glow well-suited to the song’s subject. I caught more than a few musicians genuinely grinning as the song progressed, and how could they not? When the singers lamented the loss of Joltin’ Joe, every section called out for his return, and wound up with a brassy, big-band finish that brought the audience to its feet.
The encore brought applause the moment the lyrics began, and no wonder. I’ve decided that, henceforth, every show, no matter who the singer is, should end with “The Boxer.” The opening left the duo to their spare harmony and guitar, and with the first “lie-la-lie” the drums crashed in like a train, driving the bass line forward. The trumpet solo soared, the tuba bellowed, the cymbals crashed, and the night closed in a triumph.
I asked my fellow symphony-goer how she liked the show. “It’s lovely,” she said. “It’s like a warm hug.” I couldn’t have put it better. The world still needs Simon & Garfunkel to gather us close and tell us we all know it’s rough out there, but as long as we have music, we have hope.