Pitt hosts Writer’s Series speaker, recital in Oakland

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There’s no limit to the benefits a community experiences from the presence of universities. And we’re not talking about keg parties.

Tonight, for example, we have the opportunity to enjoy readings from author and critic Hilton Als as part of the Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers Series and/​or a recital of new music for violin and piano. Both events are made possible by the University of Pittsburgh.

Mr. Als was recently profiled in the pages of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by my friend and former staff writer Philip A. Stephenson.

“Hilton Als has been a critic at the New Yorker for almost 20 years and a contributor to the magazine for more like a quarter century, since the Barbadian-American was barely 20, filing stories for the “Talk of the Town” feature,” Mr. Stephenson wrote.

“A New Yorker himself, he came of age (and, not incidentally, came out) in the midst of the churning ’70s arts scene of the city, and in his latest book, ‘White Girls,’ he gamely explores novel resonances of identity between gay black men like himself and white women. … The book also looks at relationships among people who fantasize about and often seek out the people who are their opposites, their mirror-images and their imaginary long lost twins.”

“We have amazing people reading for us,” said Peter Trachtenberg, an assistant professor in the writing program at Pitt and the man who suggested reaching out to Mr. Als. “I particularly love his work. I think it’s just dazzling. He was just nominated for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award in criticism.

“His work — this is my opinion — acts as a bridge between the personal and the abstract or the political, using the personal experience as a way to look at big themes. It’s almost acrobatic in the way it moves between high and low diction. It can sound alternately like somebody speaking to you, somebody actually gossiping with you, and at the same time he’s saying very powerful, truthful things about art, about race, about gender, about love, that people might be reading a hundred years from now. He navigates both.”

The program for tonight, as with most evenings with the Pittsburgh Contemporary Writer’s Series, features Mr. Als reading from his work and then, if time permits, some questions from the audience. And, as always, it is free and open to the public.

Make sure you’re at the university’s Frick Fine Arts Auditorium on Schenley Drive in Oakland by 8:30.

Oakland also is the site of the music recital by violinist Roger Zahab and pianist Robert Frankenberry (and significant guests) at the Bellefield Hall Auditorium on Pitt’s campus.

“There are concerts almost every week at Pitt, and Rob and I have been performing together for 20 years,” said Mr. Zahab, a teacher at Pitt who also writes music and directs the chamber orchestra.

“We’ve had many — probably more than a hundred — pieces that have been written for us and that we have premiered. Sometimes it’s me as violinist or violist, sometimes it’s something for me to conduct. Sometimes Rob sings and plays piano.

He plays the bassoon as well.

“Rob is a performer at-large, who has taught at Pitt in the past. He’s a pianist, a singer, an actor, a director.”

The pair has performed in England and Scotland. Tonight in Oakland they will be presenting works by Jeremy Beck (a premier of a sonata), Daron Hagen, Eric Moe, John Fitz Rogers and Reza Vali, as well as a little something by Mr. Zahab himself.

“We do a lot of stuff. It’s kind of hard to give a concise description,” Mr. Zahab said when asked for a concise description.

“The audience will experience the wide range of music our friends are writing,” he said. “A lot of it is very lyrical. The oldest piece, I believe, is from 2007. Jeremy Beck sounds very American. Eric is funky and very humorous. My piece is sort of dreamy and strange.

“Probably the overriding description would be that they’re very taut works. There’s a great degree of interplay and rhythm. Interconnectedness. They’re very integrated. It’s the kind of thing we love to do, but performers rarely put these things together in a program, partly because they’re really difficult, so you have to live with them for a while and play them many times to really feel comfortable. It’s music we love.”

And the audience?

“We get people from throughout the community. People who want to hear new music. A lot of other faculty members. A bunch of students always come. Our students, you see, are not just musicians; they’re multifaceted.

Very often they’ll come straight from their lecture in biology or engineering. The concert is free, but if anyone has spare change to donate to the Orchestra Fund, it would be greatly appreciated.”

Free, entertaining and enriching. The only problem is you have to choose because the recital starts at 8 p.m. at 315 S. Bellefield Ave.

Dan Majors: dmajors@post-gazette.com.

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