Trey Anastasio and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra redefine classical rock
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When you see the billing of [Rock Star X] with the such-and-such symphony, the expectation is that the highly trained conservatory musicians can don their black suits, take their seat, tune up and basically take the night off.
That wasn't the case Tuesday night as the vaunted Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra appeared to have its hands full with Trey Anastasio.
It may not have been Beethoven, but the leader of Phish came to Pittsburgh packing subtle orchestral arrangements that involved the entire ensemble. I was sitting at the perfect angle to see in the eyes of concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley that he was fully engaged, and even enjoying, what he was playing.
During the intermission, I approached one of the musicians, who acknowledged that these were the most complex pieces they've been handed to back a rock or pop star.
As for Mr. Anastasio, the scruffy singer-guitarist, on a limited tour of orchestras, played most of the three-hour concert with a blissed-out smile, often gazing up toward the balcony as if he were seeing an angel. "This is kind of like a dream," he said a few songs in. "If I could express to you what an honor it is to play with an orchestra that has the history of this orchestra ...."
The intricacy of the music was revealed from the opening piece, "First Tube," an eight-minute instrumental built around a delicate electric guitar pattern that had Mr. Anastasio playing off each section of the orchestra.
They followed that with "Water in the Sky," a simpler folk song with more syrupy strings, indicating that they might settle into more pedestrian territory. But they came right back with "The Divided Sky," a Phish song from 1989 that, true to its title, shifted seamlessly between whimsical and stormy and included classical acoustic guitar work and mic-less vocals by Mr. Anastasio and a memorable call-and-response section with strings. It was one of numerous pieces that brought the crowd to its feet in a roar.
The opening set also consisted of "Goodbye Head," a cinematic piece showcasing the brass section and jazzier electric playing; "Guyute," with galloping rhythms and cascading melodies; "Let Me Lie," with its childlike lyrics about a bike; and Phish phave "Stash," which got the crowd involved with staccato hand-clap percussion.
Those who dallied too long during the intermission found themselves standing through the elaborate, nearly 40-minute suite "Time Turns Elastic," the highlight of which was the ability of the evening's soloist to make his guitar cry. One of the prettiest vocals of the night came on "If I Could," a rolling folk ballad in the Cat Stevens vein that employed a lovely duet with the harp.
Naturally, they closed the second set in a big way with "You Enjoy Myself," a space-rock jam that had the PSO grooving and vamping, sometimes in comical fashion, climaxing with a searing guitar solo and then gorgeous non-amplified vocal cries.
They could have stopped there and people still would have been raving about this for years. But Mr. Anastasio and his traveling conductor Scott Dunn, from the LA Philharmonic, were brilliant enough to realize that if you have a Beatle-worshipping rock singer-guitarist and a full orchestra, you'd be wise to treat the crowd to "Golden Slumbers" and the remainder of the "Abbey Road" medley. It's not something that either rock or classical concertgoers get to experience often, if ever, and it was every bit as rousing and magical as you'd expect.
We've heard the terms "classical rock" and "symphonic rock" and often have to shudder at the very thought of the bombast. Trey Anastasio and the Pittsburgh Symphony were a perfect integration of both, to the point where anyone who would venture into such a realm should be required to experience it. Much of the credit goes to Nashville-based arranger Don Hart, who was there to witness his work in action and was brought to the stage for a well-deserved ovation.
First Published February 15, 2012 11:19 am