Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra completes tri-national tour

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The hills were alive with the sound of the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra last month, as the group completed a 12-day tour through the Czech Republic, Austria and Slovakia. 

The 84 musicians, who range in age from 14 to 21, returned June 27 after they gave one concert each in Prague; Vienna; Bratislava, Slovakia; and Salzburg, Austria. 

“The performances were my favorite thing — getting to see the audiences watching us,” said violinist Julie Choe, 15. “I think for almost every concert, we played four encores.”

But the four performances were also very different from each other, said Craig Johnson, executive director of the orchestra. During two hours of pre-concert rehearsal, the group had to adjust to each venue’‍s unique acoustics. 

“It’‍s just a matter of getting used to how long it takes the sound to come back, how much reverberation there is, if there’‍s any echo,” Mr. Johnson said. “Within that two-hour time frame, people do feel the difference and can manage the performance.”

The concerts at Prague’‍s Dvorak Hall of the Rudolfinum and Bratislava’‍s Slovak Radio Hall sold out. The audience was very engaged at all four performances, Julie said. 

“They gave us standing ovations, and they clapped for a very long time,” said the McCandless girl.

The group’‍s last performance, in Salzburg’‍s Mozarteum, was the highlight of the trip for trombonist Christopher Petricca, 18. Due to his graduation last month from Fort Cherry Junior/Senior High School, the tour marked the end of his time with the orchestra.

“There are a lot of people I performed with that trip that I’‍m probably not going to get to perform with again,” said the McDonald resident. “That moment was kind of the sum of the entire season, saying ‘‍Here’‍s what we accomplished.’‍” 

As the musicians traveled between nations, experiencing unfamiliar cultures gave them “quite an education,” Mr. Johnson said. 

“When you go from country to country, you’‍re well aware of it, not just because of the language, but because of the customs, the food, the look,” he said. “Going from the Czech Republic to Austria to Slovakia is not that much different than Pennsylvania to Ohio to Illinois, distance-wise, but there’‍s such an enormous difference in the cultures from country to country over there.” 

Sometimes, language barriers posed a challenge. 

“You’‍d try to order a pastry from a shop, and it is a process trying to point out what you want, how much it costs,” Christopher said. “There were a few times we tried to order something and ended up getting something a little different.” 

For some students, the musical and cultural aspects of the orchestra’‍s tour were closely intertwined. Violinist Jessica Mattson, 18, said she enjoyed performing in Bratislava’‍s Slovak Radio Hall because of Slovakia’‍s connection with a piece that the group played there, Dmitri Shostakovich’‍s Symphony No. 10. 

“[Shostakovich] was under a lot of pressure from [former Soviet Union leader Joseph] Stalin to write things a certain way. A lot of his music is about how he feels about the Communist regime,” said Jessica, of Hampton. “I thought it was cool that there might be some people in the audience who lived through that.” 

Christopher said he was grateful for the opportunity to experience new places on the tour.

“I got to learn a lot about different countries, different cultures,” he said. “I have music to thank for that.”

Marisa Iati; miati@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1891 or on Twitter @marisa_iati.  

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