Saturday, September 27, 2008


Tonight was the Saturday season opener for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and I was there in my seat at Heinz Hall.

Not my seat from last year: I moved up a few rows to save myself a few bucks. Some might say I have no business renewing my subscription, but at around $10 apiece for seven concerts, with an additional complimentary ticket and a $30 gas card thrown in, it'd be mendacious scrupulosity to say no.

It looked like a lot of other people were attracted in as well: the hall, orchestra and balcony, was practically filled. And by people of all ages, too. Including a lot of kids, a lot of college students, and even an infant or two-- out of whom I heard not one peep all evening.

The first piece was Short Ride in a Fast Machine by John Adams, the PSO's composer of the year. This was the third time I'd heard it in the past week or two, most recently last night on a live radio broadcast of the orchestra's season opener. I have to say I liked it better in person.

Then we had Joshua Bell playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. Whoot! I've seen and heard Mr. Bell in concert several times, beginning back in the mid-'80s when he was still a teenager, and it's always a rewarding experience. To quote the ordination vows of the Presbyterian Church (USA), he played that concerto with "energy, intelligence, imagination, and love."

He was brought out for three or four curtain calls. The last time, he left his violin backstage, as if to say, "No encores tonight, sorry!" Well, we could hope, couldn't we?

Well, after throwing himself so thoroughly into that music, I suppose he was rather drained. And he was still on to sign autographs during intermission. I didn't stand in line for that; rather I took up a position on the first balcony overlooking the Great Hall and watched the queue. I get a kick out of seeing Josh Bell sign autographs, especially for kids. It's apparent to me that he remembers what it was like as a child violinist, practicing and practicing, and he likes to encourage the young ones to keep it up.

When we took our seats for the second half, a PSO official stepped to the front of the stage and said, “You will notice there are more microphones than usual on the stage tonight. That’s because we’re trying to make a live recording of the Mahler Titan Symphony with our new conductor, Manfred Honeck. The Mahler has some very, very quiet passages in it, particularly in the first movement. It also has some very loud ones. So if you must cough, please control yourself and don’t do it during the quiet parts! Wait till the music gets loud, and then you may cough—discreetly.”

He bowed himself off and the music began, quietly. One bar, two bars, three bars, then, from one quarter of the hall, “Koff!” A bar or two more, then, “Koff!!” A bit more quiet music, then, “Koff! Koff!”

Oh, hell! Can’t we control ourselves for even that short a time?

And then, three seats down in my own row, a young woman was veritably possessed by the Coughing Demon: “Koff! koff! koff! Koff!! koff!! koff! koff! koff! koff!!!”

As one who’s struggled with recurrent bronchitis since the age of nine I know what it’s like to be seized by a terrible urge to hack out one’s lungs in public. But clearly, this young woman had never developed the moral and physical stricture that I call “Die First!” To be exercised only on such occasions as tonight’s, this rule says it doesn’t matter how great the drive is to let it out, I Will Keep That Cough In or Die In The Attempt.

The only time I remember failing at it was in seminary, during a Good Friday chapel service when I was supposed to be singing in the choir. The coughing incubus settled on me, I couldn’t master it, and I excused myself to the ladies’ room in the chapel basement—where I proceeded to cough up my immortal soul. My fellow choir members later told me they could hear me all the way upstairs.

My neighbor at Heinz Hall didn’t produce so stupendous a sound, but it was bad enough. And as is the way with the Coughing Demon, it didn’t drive her to it during the fortissimos, hell, no, only during the long pia-pia-pianissimi.

I wish I could have slipped her a cough drop, but the only one I had was sharing its wrapper with a spent piece of chewing gum offered me by a fellow presbyter at the very end of break at last Tuesday's presbytery meeting. Like an idiot I didn't get rid of it before we reconvened, and there I was in the Communion service with no place to put it but the tail of a cough drop paper!

The beleaguered cougher fled after the first movement and didn’t reappear. I felt sorry for her, but I hope the orchestra is trying for this recording during all three of this weekend’s performances.

I’ve only heard the Mahler 1st Symphony as it’s poured over me via classical radio, so I don’t know it that intimately. But from tonight’s performance I’d say Maestro Honeck and the Pittsburgh played it strongly and very well. It’ll be a long time before I get its lines and melodies out of my head.

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