Family music makers: Mom, dad, daughter to play rare concerto at Pittsburgh Symphony

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Musical talent grows well on family trees. There's the Bachs, the Mendelssohns, the Carters, the Jackson Five and many more.

Closer to home, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra has several musical families, not counting music director Manfred Honeck's (his father was, and his two siblings and his son are professional musicians).

Yet few perform with the PSO at the same time, which has been the case on several occasions with the Gortons -- co-principal oboist James Gorton, principal harpist Gretchen Van Hoesen and their harpist daughter, Heidi Van Hoesen Gorton, now principal harpist of the Toronto Symphony.

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

Manfred Honeck, conductor; James Gorton, oboe, Gretchen Van Hoesen and Heidi Gorton, harp

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

Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown.

Tickets: Start at $20; 412-391-4900;

Considering their instrumental makeup, it is remarkable that the family from Regent Square will be the first family in many decades, if not ever, to have collectively taken the solo position in a concerto. Instead of more likely candidates such as Bach's Double Violin Concerto or Beethoven's Triple Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano, it is an obscure work by a lesser-known conductor who dabbled in composing that will take the honor: Eugene Goossens' "Concert Piece for Oboe, Two Harps and Orchestra."

"We have played all together only a few times," says Ms. Van Hoesen, seated in the family's music room in their house in Regent Square. There simply aren't many works for two harps and oboe, although she and her daughter have performed many harp duos. The first time was on the Heinz Hall stage, first in a gala and then in a performance of Richard Strauss' "Death and Transfiguration" in 2007.

As luck would have it, Goossens' "Concert Piece" was written for his siblings, with the oboist occasionally switching to the English horn and the oboe d'amore. The British composer and conductor, who was on the short list to be music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony in the late 1930s, premiered it in 1958 in Australia. When the Gortons perform it to close the orchestra's subscription season, it will be only the second time it has been performed professionally.

For the Gortons, the performances will be a display of their family's love of music. Speaking in the family's house in which they are rehearsing, the three operate with efficiency as they navigate the peculiarities of the work, with no one dominating. Though they haven't played as a team together, they mesh well for obvious reasons. "We don't have to do preparatory work," says Ms. Van Hoesen. "We know each others' playing style."

But the moment also will serve as a celebration of Mr. Gorton's 41 years in the orchestra as he will retire at the end of this season. "My first season was the orchestra's first season at Heinz Hall," says Mr. Gorton. "It's been a privilege to work with great artists such as Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman and William Steinberg." But he has just as strong memories of a more harrowing type.

"In my first season, we were about to perform Beethoven's Symphony No. 7," he says. "Backstage, I opened my case and my oboe wasn't there!" He had left it at home. A colleague in the section handed him an English horn. "I took the bell off to look like an oboe and pretended to play. Yes, I faked Beethoven Seven!"

Mr. Gorton and Ms. Van Hoesen met in Pittsburgh, although he played in the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra with her father, K. David Van Hoesen, prior to coming to the PSO. Their daughter, now in her 20s, has been a name in Pittsburgh for years. As a teen, she won every local award and then studied at the Juilliard School, but she never felt pushed by her parents. "I can't remember a time when I didn't love the harp," she says.

"She asked for one at 7 years old," says Mr. Van Hoesen. The oboe? Mr. Gorton smiles slyly, saying "She didn't have the interest."

The "Concert Piece" abounds with late Romantic tonality, but has a few modern touches. At one point both harpists weave paper ribbons through their strings to make a buzzing sounds. And the finale that Goossens characterized as "a circus polka" is full of snippets from works that Goossens and his siblings adored: Tchaikovsky's "Waltz of the Flowers," Offenbach's "Tales of Hoffmann," and works by Chopin and Paganini.

The deep love of music has sustained both of these family trees.


Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod: or 412-263-1750. He blogs at


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