PSO performances not lost in translation

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PARIS, France -- A challenging aspect of touring Europe is keeping up with the languages. Much has changed since the Internet began to bind the world together, and these days English is spoken at least a little in most places. But Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra members enjoy learning some language basics as a courtesy to our host countries.

Switching countries every few days makes that difficult, however. Many of us have found ourselves linguistically one country behind. After a week in Spain, "Gracias" was getting comfortable, but a mere plane ride to Vienna and suddenly it's time to bring out "Danke," which takes a few days to settle in. A week later we're in Paris. Forty-eight hours may not be enough to get used to "Merci."

There are other subtleties. If one is headed to the ground floor in an elevator, pressing "1" may not get you there. In German elevators you hit "E" for "Erdgeschoss" and in French lifts it's "R" for "Rez-de-chaussee."

After the first concert in Austria, the PSO's residency in the Musikverein continued with rehearsals. We had new vocal soloists and choir for both the Mahler Symphony No. 2 and Mozart Requiem. The PSO's music director, Austrian native Manfred Honeck, whose English is beautiful, nevertheless apologized to orchestra members for speaking in German to the Vienna Singverein choir.

"I'm just so happy to be able to express myself!" he explained.

Audience response to both the Mozart Requiem and the two Mahler Second concerts was resounding, eliciting rhythmic applause. Each night, we lost count of the many curtain calls. Amid the shouts and bravos, we also saw audience members wiping away tears. Veteran concertgoers said they had not often experienced such ovations in the Musikverein.

The Mozart Requiem was recorded for radio broadcast in Europe, and the Mahler symphony was recorded both nights for later release as a commercial CD.

After the second Mahler performance on Saturday, we returned to the empty hall for an hourlong "patch" session to record spots in the concerts marred by audience noise. There was another shorter session for the offstage brass bands, which did not end until 11:15 p.m. It was a long day.

Mr. Honeck hosted a lovely party for the orchestra at Kursalon Hubner, a historic venue in the City Park. It was announced during the evening that the PSO would be returning to Vienna for another residency in the future. We responded with our own rhythmic applause!

The orchestra's last day in Vienna was free of concerts. Many of our group took walks around the musically rich city whose streets are peppered with names of composers (Mahler, Haydn), opera characters (Papageno, Nibelungen) and even a piano (Bosendorfer).

PSO violist Meng Wang attended a recital by Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli. A group of football fans went to a nearby sports bar to watch the Steelers/Giants game. We sampled wiener schnitzel along with fresh local pilsner.

The Mahler symphony involved extra musicians who flew home from Vienna, leaving a somewhat smaller ensemble to finish the tour. On Tuesday, the remaining orchestra members flew to Paris for a concert the same evening in the Salle Pleyel. The performance was greeted with another enthusiastic audience, which we rewarded with two encores. Afterward, concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley courteously led the orchestra offstage so we could all go home.

Our tour booklet announces a free day today in Paris. The oboe section has trooped off to visit the shop of Francois Loree, the epicenter of fine oboe making. Some other players are taking a guided bicycle tour of the city under a miraculous blue sky. And then there is shopping, and, of course, sampling the famous French cuisine.

Early Wednesday morning the PSO travels by train to Cologne, Germany, for a concert in the evening at the Philharmonie. Let's see ... if it's Wednesday, it must be "Danke."


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


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