Donning a red and gold Gryffindor tie and a pair of rounded glasses, Conductor Lawrence Loh guides the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra through a song from “Harry Potter” with a wizard’s wand in place of a baton.
The “Harry Potter And the Sorcerer’s Stone” theme was just one of the many popular pieces that were covered at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s sensory-friendly concert — “Music of Flight and Fantasy” — held at Heinz Hall this past Saturday.
PSO organizes its sensory-friendly concerts with those with autism spectrum disorders, sensory sensitivities and disabilities in mind. The PSO’s website defines these performances as “inclusive experiences that are open to patrons of all ages and abilities and designed for individuals on the autism spectrum, those with sensory sensitivities and others who would like to enjoy a concert in a relaxed environment.”
Roger Ideishi, director of the occupational therapy program at Temple University’s Department of Rehabilitation Sciences, is a consultant for the sensory-friendly Flight and Fantasy concert. When most people hear the phrase “sensory-friendly” they probably assume that it simply involves mediating the sound of the concert. But while that is sometimes a factor, that’s not really the case.
“When you think about theater rules, it’s sit down, be quiet, don’t move,” Ideishi said. “And you can only go in and out of the theater hall at certain points. In sensory-friendly experiences, all of those rules are relaxed — you can talk, you can move about, you can go in and out as much as you want.”
Before the concert officially started, Loh, the newly-appointed music director of the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra, offered a few words of encouragement to the audience regarding the relaxed rules and setting of the event. Loh promoted vocalizing — a vocal expression that people on the spectrum may engage in whenever they experience something they like or dislike — as well as moving further from or closer to the stage during the performance.
According to Ideishi, this setting is necessary for the needs of people on the spectrum in public spaces.
“Individuals have different needs at different times and with that flexibility, those needs can be met at any point during the experience,” Ideishi said.
The sensory-friendly concerts differ from PSO’s typical concerts in that sounds are mediated, seating is flexible and the main house lights are kept on throughout the show for easier movement.
“These families often feel scrutinized and judged when they go out into the community,” Ideishi said. “So [we are] creating that supportive safe space […] and communication — in verbal and in nonverbal ways — to [be able to] provide that communication to the family members.”
Vanessa Braun, assistant director of accessibility at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and Pitt alum, echoed this sentiment, adding that people on the autism spectrum feel welcome at the concerts.
“I would say that all of the feedback that we receive from people always goes back to the fact that ‘I felt welcome when I walked in the door,’” Braun said.
The concert itself held a few surprises up its tailored tuxedo sleeve. Artist Stacy Innerst was brought on stage for the performance of “Pure Imagination” from the 1971 film “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.” Innerst hand drew a black and white picture of Willy Wonka and a pair of children floating in the sky, held up by an umbrella and some balloons, while Katy Williams — a regionally renowned soprano — provided vocals.
And although Loh took some measures to mediate the concert’s sounds, he described the task as a good challenge for the orchestra and that it was nothing too diminishing.
“I had the orchestra tone down the loudest dynamics so that there would be a slightly tempered range of volume,” Loh said. “I also had them slightly adjust their style of playing to make certain parts a little less abrupt and surprising without taking away any of the excitement.”
An American Sign Language interpreter sat off to the right side of the stage, translating Williams’ vocals and Loh’s between-song banter. Large digital screens on each side of the stage offer live captions of the concert in large print.
For an interesting rendition of the giant, three-headed dog scene from “Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone,” PSO members Gretchen Van Hoesen and James W. Rodgers playe a duet of harp and contrabassoon, respectively. Van Hoesen replicates the harp music from the scene, while Rodgers imitates Fluffy’s snoring with the contrabassoon.
The concert also dabbled in classical orchestral pieces, such as a suite from “Swan Lake,” complemented by a pair of ballet dancers from Point Park University, Madeline Kelso and DaMond Garner. Audience members, young and old, make conducting motions with their hands from their seats, while a few people edge close to the stage, imitating the dance movements.
“Flight of the Bumblebee” from the Russian opera “The Tale of Tsar Saltan,” which, while quick and difficult to play, did not hold some people’s attention. “When is ‘Star Wars?’” a kid in the crowd anxiously called out to his mother. The main theme from John Williams iconic “Star Wars” score acted as the concert’s finale, with Loh brandishing a short green lightsaber almost out of nowhere as his new baton.
Sensory-friendly events are usually discounted, making it a cheap, easy way for families to find a Saturday outing. Although PSO’s average concert tickets range from around $30 for gallery seating to $100 for box seats, all “Flight and Fantasy” tickets were $15.
Anne Mulgrave, a Pitt alum and manager of grants & Accessibility for the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, said that most families who have a member with an autism spectrum disorder spend a lot of money on treatments and therapies that aren’t covered by medical insurance.
“So [families with a member who is on the autism spectrum] have a tendency to have far less disposable income,” Mulgrave said. “So to bring the family to a sensory-friendly ‘Lion King’ is out of economic needs — they just can’t afford it.”
Ideishi, who works on similar events across the country, points to Pittsburgh as a leader and model for public programs like these. This is easily proved by a cursory search for sensory-friendly concerts and artistic events in Pittsburgh — from the PSO, to an upcoming sensory-friendly performance of “Wicked” in 2018, to inclusive events at the Andy Warhol Museum.
“I always tell organizations that they really should look at how Pittsburgh has collaborated and created all of these opportunities and education for the organizations as well as the public,” Ideishi said.
Loh, a guest conductor at orchestras in big cities across the country, reinforced the idea of Pittsburgh as a leader when it comes to sensory-friendly concerts and added that he had convinced other orchestras to put on their own sensory-friendly shows through talking about PSO’s concerts.
“Pittsburgh is definitely a leading city when it comes to sensory-friendly events,” Loh said. “I’m proud of being associated with such a thoughtful and inclusive organization.”