Dogs conduct themselves well at PSO's audition


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Typical auditions for spots in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra can yield hundreds of applicants. Screens and rugs are set out on stage to ensure anonymity.

For these tryouts, however, the Heinz Hall stage instead had a mop bucket in case there was an accident.

Ten canines and their handlers tried out for a chance to perform with the PSO in Leopold Mozart's "Hunting Horn Symphony," which calls for dog-musicians to bark alongside horn soloists. The first movement of the piece will be played during a free concert at Point State Park during the Three Rivers Arts Festival in June.

The Pittsburgh Symphony has gone to the dogs

The PSO is auditioning 10 canines to perform with the symphony at the 55th Annual Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival. Here's a look at five of the hopefuls. (Video edited by Melissa Tkach; 5/13/2014)

10 dogs audition for chance to perform with Symphony

Canines and their handlers audition to perform with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra during the 55th Annual Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival in June held at Heinz Hall in Downtown Pittsburgh. (Video by Michael Henninger; 5/13/2014)

The finalists were culled from 11 online video submissions in which the pups were asked to sit, stay, bark, and be silent on command. All but one was chosen as finalists for Tuesday's live auditions at Heinz Hall. (In that case, the dog did not bark, which was deemed a deal-breaker.)

Hounds and handlers came on stage in pairs. As a short recording played throughout the hall, resident conductor Fawzi Haimor gave cues to handlers, who in turn signaled to the dogs to bark.

Mr. Haimor was a judge along with horn players Bob Lauver and Ron Schneider; Dan Rossi, executive director of the Animal Rescue League; and Kristen Lane, director of marketing and public relations of the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society.

They considered several factors, including the ability to bark and stop on command, project loudly, not be distracted and stay still. The judges also looked for a variety of tones.

"Each dog has to have its own unique sound," Mr. Haimor said.

Jetty, a seven-year-old Newfoundland, opened up the auditions. With whispered commands, subtle hand-motions and a few treats, handler Bethany Karger brought out a strong performance from the 140-pound canine.

Then came Grizzly, Anuka, Sonny, Oscar, Leo, Jermiah, Otis, Sergeant Preston and Bailey.

Sonny, 7, is a veteran competitor. He won the American Kennel Club Rally National Championship in Harrisburg in March and on Tuesday was ranked the third-best border collie in the country, said his handler, Lucy McCloskey of South Park. Here, he demonstrated a ringing tenor, consistent tone and even rhythm.

"Good job, baby boy," Ms. McCloskey said as they walked off stage.

"I think raising a paw at the end, there's got to be bonus points for that," Mr. Schneider said.

Oscar appeared to get stage-fright and sneezed during the performance. Otis, a bloodhound, had prodigious jowls that were not conducive to equally prodigious barks.

PSO employee Francine Schiffman Lumia volunteered her mutt, Sergeant Preston, who had strong stage presence and a voice that blared like a trumpet.

"He looks out like he owns the place," Mr. Schneider said.

Rounding out the first round was Bailey, who made quite an entrance with his beautifully groomed gray fur. After smelling the corner of the conductor's podium, he struggled to produce sounds, and the judges would learn why. "He's hand-signal trained, but he's going blind, so it's all new to him," said his handler, Debra Cutshall. Still, the underdog won fashion points with his gorgeous coat.

After the first listen, a quartet of canines was brought back onstage for the final round. The judges weighed their options, while the dogs waited backstage in the hot and somewhat odorous green room. Ms. Lane described one as "tongue-tied, not interested in playing a starring role with the PSO."

The competition called for four winners, but the judges wanted five. Bailey didn't provide much barking power, but he was a beauty and would provide visual variety.

"Artistically, I'm opposed to Bailey," said Mr. Schneider with a touch of irony.

"You need the candy," argued Ms. Lane.

Jetty, Grizzly, Sonny, Sergeant Preston and Bailey were selected. The rest were alternates.

"They're all great dogs," Mr. Lauver said.

The PSO last performed this piece in 2004 at Heinz Hall, with Andre Previn conducting. Auditions for that concert took place at Heinz Hall. Jetty's father, Ensign, now 14, had unsuccessfully tried out for that audition. "She did it for her dad," said Ms. Karger of Allison Park.

The "Hunting Horn Symphony," written by Wolfgang Amadeus's father, also asks for gunshots -- the PSO will likely use some sort of starter pistol -- and shouts. It's not the only piece of classical music that calls for canine contributions. One character in Peter Schikele's opera "The Stoned Guest" is a St. Bernard.


Elizabeth Bloom: ebloom@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750. Twitter: @BloomPG.

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