From the very beginning of my tenure as classical music critic of the Post-Gazette, I have found comfort in my phone number.
People are adept at forcing meaning onto numbers, but surely it was a sign that I was assigned the extension of 1750 -- the year Johann Sebastian Bach died and the widely held demarcation between the Baroque and classical periods in music history. I needed something to steady me as I began my jackpot of a job. I had become one of only a few full-time classical music critics in the nation at age 27.
It was a bit overwhelming. I knew Pittsburgh as a city full of cultural delights but hadn't heard the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra live. I knew it was a big-time orchestra, but I wasn't prepared for the warmth of tone pouring off the Heinz Hall stage. PSO has the timbre of the glory days of orchestras, a sound I had heard more in records from the 1950s and '60s than I had from the major American orchestras I had visited. It was a glorious European timbre that I guess you'd call "old school."
For 13 years, I have basked in that sound and been privy to a music scene that can boast of an ensemble in nearly every major classical music genre. At the end of this month, I will leave the beat to finish an MBA and to consult in the nonprofit sector.
The critic's job is inherently biased and subjective, but I have tried to limit that. I've used the first person to indicate that what I write is just my opinion, not to show what I know (or think I know). I have tried to empower readers, to let them know their opinions are just as valid as mine. A critic has two advantages over most audience members -- access to artists and the need to listen with abnormal attentiveness because we must write a review immediately after.
A critic shouldn't be read as an end-all, be-all judge, but rather as a conversation starter or jumping off point. I have gotten far more letters of agreement than of disdain. I routinely factored in the level and budget of groups in my reviews and never consciously tried to dissuade anyone from going to a concert.
How has the classical music scene in Pittsburgh changed since I started? Actually, not that much, and that is both good and bad. On the positive side, few organizations have disappeared. The most regrettable, the Y Music Society, was subsumed by the PSO. Others have been transformed for the better, such as the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble and the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, which both moved to summer seasons. Some have maintained excellence with new members, such as Chatham Baroque, or with new leadership, such as the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society and the Renaissance and Baroque Society. The universities have supported a raft of local composers with international reputations and offered compelling programming and respected guest artists. The region's choirs have come a long way, and music niches like pipe organists and youth ensembles have been top shelf.
But the repertoire of the groups remains remarkably conservative. I could listen to Beethoven or Mozart all day long, but the region's groups have relied too much on the core classics. It's not even a case of programming contemporary music, but just of different music. I've been told that groups stick to the familiar out of concern for their bottom line. I like hearing different interpretations of works, but the repetition has been excessive.
If I had to pick an organization that found a happy medium it would be the Pittsburgh Opera. Under Christopher Hahn, it has managed to include at least one opera each season that is essentially new or has not been performed here in a while. Remember "The Grapes of Wrath," "Dead Man Walking" and "The Flying Dutchman"? These took guts to produce. While I certainly tired of the war horses the company repeated, I don't think Mr. Hahn was wrong to stage them. They are the best way to attract new patrons and casual attendees.
The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is a case of consistency cutting both ways. The high performance standard never wavered during my tenure. Orchestras generally have ups and downs artistically, and there was a time in the mid-2000s when the PSO was a bit rudderless between music directors. But even then the high level never dipped. And its best efforts often came when the orchestra could have phoned it in, for instance when the soloist or conductor was subpar. If you have read even a handful of my reviews, you know my joy at hearing the PSO principals, including a few whose names appeared frequently.
But I have heard the same works and the same guest soloists too often. In fact, the main culprit has been concertos. There's far fewer of these in the standard repertoire than orchestral pieces, so the repetition rate is even higher (looking at you, Mendelssohn Violin Concerto). The need for booking a soloist in nearly every concert needs to be reassessed, especially as the most successful concerts in my time have not had one. Music director Manfred Honeck has done some daring programming. Take the staging of Handel's "Messiah," for instance. But more is needed in stage offerings (not to mention connecting the art form in general to the public).
An internationally renowned orchestra should be doing more that brings attention internationally. I think local patrons would relish being a part of that, at least occasionally. And I don't buy the excuse that the conservative programming is crucial to the bottom line when this approach has left the PSO with budget deficits nearly every year. Fortunately, this region has a robust history of philanthropy. Where would all the local groups be without the likes of the Heinz Endowments, Richard P. Simmons and Owen Cantor? Passionate donors and committed boards are the norm here.
The Mariss Jansons years at the PSO seem so long ago that I don't feel overly connected to them. But I still have goosebumps from when he spoke from the heart before a performance of a Shostakovich Symphony, painted vivid colors in Stravinsky's "Petrushka" and elicited my tears with Mahler's Third. His encores were wonderfully chosen, and his energy palpable. Although Andrew Davis was largely underwhelming, I was enthralled by his conducting of "The Dream of Gerontius."
Yo-Yo Ma, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Emanuel Ax and Yefim Bronfman rarely disappointed, although my fondest memories of soloists are of Gil Shaham, Hilary Hahn and Leonidas Kavakos. And Mr. Honeck's dramatic readings of Mahler, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven symphonies have invigorated my love for their music. Many visiting performers moved me immeasurably: Pacifica Quartet, Tallis Scholars, Vivica Genaux, Renee Fleming and Alarm Will Sound.
I have sat through far more than my share of disappointing and sometimes maddening guest conductor and soloist performances. But the worst night was the Davis-led gala concert in 2005 when those damnable helium balloons hung below the ceiling of Heinz Hall popped prematurely with the volume of cannonballs, some during a Yo-Yo Ma performance.
I will occasionally appear as a freelancer (including for several concerts in fall). I will continue to have opinions about the concerts I attend, I just won't be broadcasting them. And I will carry the amazing music I have heard for all of my days.
Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod: email@example.com or 412-263-1750. @druckenbrod. First Published June 23, 2013 4:00 AM