PSO pulls out all the stops for Carnegie Mellon

The line to pick up will-call tickets at the venue was out the door and around the corner, and the line of people hoping to buy last-minute tickets was even longer — even with 10 minutes left before the concert was going to start.

When the show began, people were still rushing to their seats as the audience members stood and sang along to the music. This may sound typical for a rock concert, but it was somewhat unexpected for this musical group: It was the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO) at Heinz Hall last Saturday.

The high attendance was in part thanks to the Carnegie Mellon University Night that the orchestra was hosting: Students, faculty, and staff received discounts on tickets.

The concert began with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and once everyone was settled back into their seats, William Caballero, the PSO’s principal horn and an associate teaching professor in the School of Music, strode onto the stage with the conductor, PSO music director Manfred Honeck.

This is Caballero’s 24th year as principal horn in the PSO, and his experience was apparent in his rendition of Richard Strauss’ Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major for Horn and Orchestra. The French horn is usually known for its bold, brassy sound, but Caballero showed off the horn’s sweet, expressive side. At some points in the concerto, the horn almost sounded like the woodwind instruments that accompanied it.

His performance also highlighted his technical ability. Near the end of the concerto, Caballero picked up the tempo, his fingers flying over the instrument’s valves as he expertly made his way through a quick sequence of notes, finishing to a standing ovation.

Caballero wasn’t the only featured soloist of the evening, however. After a short break, Thomas Hampson — an American lyric baritone — took the stage to perform four of Strauss’ songs for baritone and orchestra.

Hampson is in high demand as an opera singer, and his performance showed why: He had engaging stage presence, with animated movements and facial expressions that made the emotions in the songs easy to understand, even though all the lyrics were in German.

While all of his songs were excellent, the highlight by far was “Nächtlicher Gang,” a dramatic song about a lover looking for his beloved beyond the grave. The lyrics, taken from a poem of the same name by Friedrich Rückert, begin, “The flags flap / In the midnight storm, / The slates rattle / On the church tower.”

The PSO made for a dramatic accompaniment to Hampson’s singing. The orchestra built up to a thunderous climax, then abruptly stopped, keeping the audience members at the edge of their seats before gently easing into the conclusion. The performance made such an impact that many in the audience were excitedly murmuring after the piece finished, even though Hampson still had one more song to perform.

After intermission, the orchestra took the spotlight with its rendition of Antonín Dvorák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, more famously known as his “New World Symphony.” The symphony has been recorded hundreds of times and performed by everyone from world-class philharmonics to youth orchestras, to the point that, as an NPR article about the symphony warned, “it runs the risk of sounding hackneyed.”

Luckily, Dvorák’s symphony is lush and emotionally varied enough to overcome any worries of it becoming stale, and the PSO’s rendition brought out the best in the composition. The orchestra, under Honeck’s direction, teased out all the different colors and tones in each movement, resulting in a warm, moving performance that earned thunderous applause.

As part of Carnegie Mellon University Night, members of the university were invited to a reception after the concert in the basement of Heinz Hall. A crowd of students, faculty, and staff members gathered to eat cake and talk about the performance. Once most of the people in the crowd had started to dig into their desserts, a stream of Carnegie Mellon and PSO affiliates took to the microphone to thank everyone for coming.

The chairman of the PSO Board of Trustees, Dick Simmons, particularly expressed his delight at the presence of so many students. “We always love to see the average age [of audience members] go down,” he joked. Honeck agreed, and added that having a younger crowd adds more energy to the hall. “We feel when you are in the audience,” he said. Given the incredible concert that the PSO put on, it wouldn’t be surprising if more Carnegie Mellon students become a regular part of the audience for future performances.