With hands clasped behind his back, Sting - yep, Sting himself - paced Heinz Hall’s stage, occasionally throwing back his head to deliver a particularly raspy line.
The quintessential aging rocker, philanthropist and gentleman.
Sting can and has performed on stages around the world for millions. That he appeared in Heinz, which holds an intimate 3,000 or so, was a unique gift to the Steel City, certainly worthy of the hundreds of surreptitious photos fans snapped from the audience. This isn’t an orchestral tour; it’s a special appearance and program that he only whips out on occasion.
By some sorcery, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra was able to ensnare the Police’s former bassist and songwriter for two nights of concerts on Monday and Tuesday in a selection of his hits from across the decades. Tickets have been sold out for months.
How did it happen? Well, some of Sting’s band members happen to be fans of the Pittsburgh Symphony.
“When they came to Lincoln Center, I’ve never heard a better Mahler Symphony 5,” said band leader Rob Mathes, who played keys and wrote most of the orchestral charts for the evening. “The horns especially were ferocious - they took New York by storm.”
Sting, ever the Englishman, retains something of the troubadour about him. He told wry stories from his childhood and about the works he performed, bringing down the house with “Roxanne” and “Every Breath You Take” and “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic.”
“I remember the Queen mother visiting my street, waving from her car” he called out, describing his youth in a shipbuilding town in North England. “Our eyes locked a few seconds ... I was infected with the desire to grow beyond my beginnings. I wanted to be in the [expletive] car.”
His voice remains a study in expressivity. Sting’s voice doesn’t have much range in volume due to its hollow, warm timbre - but that isn’t to say it’s weak. (Please put down the pitchforks.) Musical dynamics aren’t about volume, or at least not just volume. They’re about varying the character of sound from gentle and wispy to penetrating and keen to formidable and strong. Sting’s ability to vary his dynamic, his sheer, raw musicality, his quiet charisma, carried the evening.
The orchestra, expertly conducted by the orchestra’s assistant conductor Moon Doh, shined in quicker rhythms and more powerful moments. There were times, however, when the orchestra was mostly long, sustained tones. These can add color and depth to the overall sound, but sometimes obscured some of the nuance of Sting’s vocal work and lyrics.
This could just mean that the blending needs a little fine-tuning.
Working with an orchestra doesn’t automatically elevate a performance - but it can. The variety of instruments, and blend and power behind so many musicians unified by a banner hit like “The End of the Game” is wondrous to behold. And the opportunity to perform with the likes of Sting is a gift to orchestras everywhere, a reminder of the potential for interesting new collaborations between different styles and genres of music.
Just ask the band.
“This orchestra’s at a level where they’re just eating music,” Mathes said in a chat after the concert. “We’ve done this program before, and we’ve played with some great orchestras, but it’s never been quite this good.”
(c) Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by Jeremy Reynolds