Art nouveau hall in Barcelona first stage for PSO European tour

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BARCELONA, Spain -- As they left Monday for a European tour, members of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra bristled with portable electronics, neck pillows, books of crosswords and Sudoku puzzles, knitting -- anything to make the nine-hour flight from Atlanta to Barcelona bearable.

The fully loaded jet flew through the night to meet the dawn over Barcelona. We disembarked into clear Spanish sunshine, blinking, stiff and rumpled, collecting our luggage and consciousness at the baggage carousel and then boarding buses to the hotel.

We were driven north into town, the extensive port of Barcelona on the right, and nearer to the city, Montjuic Cemetery, built into near-vertical slopes of a hillside facing the sea, glass vault doors shining in the sunshine.

Sightseeing was the main activity for orchestra members. High on most lists was Antoni Gaudi's architecture, so identified with this city. His buildings and monuments defy the materials used to build them, rising to seemingly melt at critical points, rounded where one would expect a straight line, exuding whimsy on every surface.

The Palau de la Musica, where the PSO performed on Thursday night, is an art nouveau masterpiece. Built in 1908, it glitters with stunning stained glass, mosaic designs on columns and walls, and plaster formed into everything from roses and horses to a bust of Beethoven. Perhaps most fascinating are the larger-than-life-size muses playing instruments. Emerging from the wall at the rear of the stage, they hovered over PSO musicians during the concert with seeming interest.

For all its decoration the hall is diminutive. Wardrobe trunks were left back at the hotel because there was little room for dressing at the hall, and the small stage barely held the immense orchestration required for the evening's sole work, Mahler's Second Symphony.

The backstage was crowded with instrument trunks, clusters of music stands and TV monitors for the offstage brass bands. Logistics for offstage players were rehearsed earlier in the day; the orchestra also prepared for Friday's concert in Madrid, a completely different program that would include Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, "From the New World."

The audience filled the hall Thursday evening and, as in all of Europe, was amazingly quiet for such a large group of people. At one point it was easier to hear the choir turning its pages than to identify noise from listeners.

Laura Claycomb was the soprano for the evening, and mezzo-soprano Gerhild Romberger repeated her Pittsburgh performance. The house choir for the Palau, Orfeo Catala, sang from the loft high above the orchestra. The effect from the stage was astonishing: truly celestial voices.

The audience rewarded the performance with multiple curtain calls and much enthusiasm. Even after the concert was over and the Palau was emptying, concertgoers stopped us in the street to thank us for the evening.

At this writing, the orchestra is on a train to Madrid, traveling at 187 mph. The ride is silky smooth.


Stephanie Tretick is a Pittsburgh Symphony violist and frequent contributor to the Post-Gazette on its tours.


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