Saturday Diary / A day of barking and beautiful music

We started with dog-sledding, then moved on to the symphony that night.

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A recent Pittsburgh Saturday was marked for my wife Libby and me by a cacophony of shrill barks of a pack of sled dogs at one end and by the mellifluous tones of violinist Joshua Bell and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at the other. The varied joys of Pittsburgh.

Libby had read in the Post-Gazette an article by events connoisseur Larry Walsh about a visit he paid to the nearby Nemacolin resort facility that offers dog-sledding. Her conclusion — don’t ask me how she got to this — was that this would be an ideal way for us to spend St. Valentine’s Day. I suppose it was some bizarre association of love, yapping dogs, cold and terrifying, rapid movement across the tundra, but, in any case, there we were all bundled up at Dog Central at a frosty 8:30 a.m.

Apart from the dogs, chained to their shelters on a hill above the center, the place contained an eclectic assortment of animals, ranging from a guinea pig named Butterball who chewed on his cardboard box to keep his teeth sharp, to a miniature donkey who sneaked up behind his keepers when they let him out and bit them, to keep his teeth sharp. There was also a python, asleep, not out of its cage. A very fancy chicken laid an egg, which got fed to a badger.

The keepers, who were also the mushers of the sled dogs, were young women, graduates in wildlife management from West Virginia University, or from farms. The people doing the hiring, according to my friend, one of the world’s experts in personnel management, chose them because they wanted people who were used to animals. After watching them wrangle squirming, snapping, 75-pound dogs into harnesses to pull the sleds, I saw perfect logic in this hiring preference. I asked if the dogs ever bit them. I was told, not.

The ride was a real kick. Eleven dogs barked and pulled. The mushers cried out directions to the beasts, adding “Good girl,” when the lead dog paid attention to the shouted directions, and older riders who had been raised on “Sgt. Preston of the Yukon” restrained themselves from shouting, “On, King, on you huskies.”

The snow shushed under the wheels of the sled. (The snow wasn’t deep enough for sled runners.) At the end the dogs were loosed, watered and, eventually, fed. They apparently love the run.

Back to Pittsburgh. In the evening we had tickets to a Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concert to be conducted by Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda and featuring violinist Joshua Bell. My wife and I had indirect connections to both.

Maestro Noseda and his wife, Lucia, were friends of an Italian friend of ours whom we had hosted in Pittsburgh. Our daughter-in-law, pianist Ana-Maria Vera, who has played in Pittsburgh, had accompanied Joshua Bell in the past.

Driving back from Nemacolin we had been listening on WQED-FM to Mr. Noseda conducting the Alexander Borodin opera, “Prince Igor,” at the Metropolitan in New York, wondering how he was going to do that and also conduct the symphony concert in Pittsburgh that night at 8. “Prince Igor” finished at 5:30 p.m. We learned later, backstage at Heinz Hall, that a generous supporter of the Metropolitan Opera had provided his private plane to fly Maestro Noseda from New York to Pittsburgh to suit up for the 8 p.m. concert.

Both concerts, “Prince Igor” and “Symphonie Espagnole,” were glorious. “Prince Igor,” which I had seen only once, in Sofia, Bulgaria, is a monstrosity in its complexity. It has wonderful music, beautiful dancing, a huge cast and a ferociously complicated plot. These elements conspire to cause it to be presented rarely. The wrangling between rival Russians, Polovtsians (a Turkish tribe), and other elements in the story, based on history, is almost as turgid as the drama encompassing the different segments of Ukrainians, Russians and Tatars in Crimea and Ukraine today. Let’s hope this one can end with thunderous applause, as did the Saturday performance of “Prince Igor” at the Met that Maestro Noseda conducted.

For the Pittsburgh’s performance of Lalo’s “Symphonie Espagnole,” Mr. Bell played his part on a 301-year-old Stradivarius. He is one of Pittsburgh’s favorites.

The Nosedas invited us backstage. There we found the maestro’s wife Lucia entertaining a group of friends, many of them Italian. Gianandrea looked slightly drained after his twin work-outs in New York and Pittsburgh. He maintained that, seconds after he took the podium in Heinz Hall, “Prince Igor” disappeared from his mind and he was fully absorbed in the “Symphonie.” We are lucky to have him come here as a guest conductor from time to time.

So, from barking dogs to glorious music, all in one day. Not bad at all for a winter Saturday. Go, Steelers.

Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (, 412-263-1976).

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