Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra season opens this weekend

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The opening weekend of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's 2013-14 season will be a homecoming of sorts. Strangely enough, that fact may be best exemplified by a group of retired percussionists who will be playing as extras in Orff's "Carmina Burana" and by a new work composed by David Stock.

Together, percussionists Alan Abel, John Soroka and Richard Weiner have roughly 130 years of orchestral experience. When asked how many of their former students are or were in professional orchestras, Mr. Abel immediately knew -- 64, he said -- while Mr. Soroka responded, "Oh boy," and Mr. Weiner replied, "Oh my God. Uh."

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

With: Manfred Honeck, conductor; Lisette Oropesa, soprano; Andrey Nemzer, tenor; Hugh Russell, baritone; Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh (Betsy Burleigh, director).

Featuring: Stock's Sixth Symphony, Orff's "Carmina Burana."

Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown.

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: $30.75 to $124.75, 412-392-4900 or www.pittsburghsymphony.org.

Suffice it to say, the trio is responsible for several dozen players, in such orchestras as the Cleveland Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the National Symphony Orchestra -- and the PSO.

The multi-generational ties run deep. Mr. Abel, 84, the former associate principal percussionist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, has taught all three members of the PSO's current percussion section. He also trained Mr. Soroka, 63, the former principal percussionist and associate principal timpanist of the PSO, who in turn taught the PSO's current principal timpanist Ed Stephan.

Though he is the self-described "outsider" of the group, Mr. Weiner, 73, the former principal percussionist of the Cleveland Orchestra, also taught the PSO's former principal timpanist, Tim Adams, at the Cleveland Institute of Music. And all six percussionists taught or studied at Temple University in Philadelphia.

"I doubt that something like this would be possible with almost any other major orchestra in the country, or even section within that orchestra," said Mr. Soroka.

Confusing as it may be to parse out, that deep heritage could contribute to a unity of percussive sound and style, one that emerged out of those Philadelphia roots.

"They sort of developed an approach and a way to play that worked, and very foremost was just a concept of sound, really good sounds that worked and blend with the ensemble," said Andy Reamer, the PSO's current principal percussionist.

It may be the result of the Philadelphia Orchestra's style and the acoustics of its former concert hall, the Academy of Music.

The PSO and the Philadelphia Orchestra are "very expressive orchestras, and their acoustics allow them to [be] so," said Mr. Abel.

"If you did not approach the instruments with that technique and particular sound production in mind, you were out of the loop," said Mr. Soroka, who lives in Clarion County and teaches at Duquesne.

"There's an innate sense, a sixth sense, of how things should be," he added.

In addition to the Orff, the PSO will play "The Star-Spangled Banner," Beethoven's "Overture to Fidelio," and the world premiere of David Stock's Sixth Symphony, which was a PSO commission.

For Mr. Stock, who lives in Shadyside and grew up in Ambridge and Stanton Heights, the chance to have his music played by the PSO again is a dream continually coming true.

"The Pittsburgh Symphony is part of my musical DNA," said Mr. Stock, 74.

The three-movement symphony was originally going to be performed in June, 2014, in celebration of Mr. Stock's 75th birthday.

"But I sure did not object when they moved it to opening night," he said.

So while opening weekend is always an exciting occasion, for Mr. Stock and this group of percussionists, this one may stick out.

"I'm entering my 24th year here, and I won't forget this one," said Mr. Reamer.


Elizabeth Bloom: ebloom@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1750 or on Twitter @BloomPG. Measured Words blog: www.post-gazette.com/measuredwords.


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