Pitt Symphony Orchestra hosts first concert of the season


Nate Yonamine | Staff Photographer

A cellist plays during Wednesday’s symphony orchestra concert in the Bellefield Hall auditorium.

By Nicholas Simila, Staff Writer

Pitt Symphony Orchestra’s first concert of the semester began with a frenzy of strings. The first piece, “La Novia de Tola” by Gilda Lyons, quickly alternates between a frantic and forlorn mood as it recounts a Nicaraguan folk story of an abandoned bride. The piece ends just like it came in — violently and suddenly.

The orchestra’s free show, which was held Wednesday evening, filled plenty of seats in Bellefield Hall. The program underscored the orchestra’s multifaceted talent. 

Matthew Alford, a senior applied mathematics major, soloed during the second part of the program which featured Camille Saint-Saens’ “Third Concerto for Violin.” His solo was quick and precise, and it made this section the highlight of the night. The solo varied between booming and serene.

Alford said he was excited to solo on this concerto because of its range of style.

“The concerto is full of passion and expression, with fast-paced, virtuosic sections as well as slow, emotional passages,” Alford said. 

The stage became notably quieter as the orchestra transitioned to playing “Adagietto” from Gustav Mahler’s fifth symphony. The suddenness and raucousness of the previous two compositions only emphasized the tranquility of the piece. 

Roger Zahab, the orchestra’s director and conductor, introduced the composition to the audience.

“We’ll make time stand still,” Zahab said.

A cellist plays during Wednesday’s symphony orchestra concert in Bellefield Hall auditorium.
(Nate Yonamine | Staff Photographer )

The strings, accompanied only by an ornate harp, dragged on languidly until the piece slowly faded out. 

But just as the audience suspected that the concert would wind down after that lax conclusion, the wind instruments came back on stage for the final piece, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Symphony no. 40 in G minor, K 550.” 

Zahab said he was excited about this part of the performance because of the piece’s popularity and its sublime clarinet parts.

“It is one of the most famous symphonies ever written.” Zahab said. “It has a dark, romantic sound … It allows us to use clarinets.”

The absence of wind instruments in Mahler’s piece indeed allowed for the clarinets to shine brightly throughout this symphony. The symphony is grand and intense, a genuine instrumental rollercoaster.

The composition of the orchestra is as diverse as the selection of compositions played during their season opener. The orchestra is made up of about 50 students, all of which have to go through an audition process.

Roger Zahab, Pitt’s symphony orchestra director, conducts during Wednesday’s symphony orchestra concert in Bellefield Hall auditorium.
(Nate Yonamine | Staff Photographer )

Alford said for students to join the orchestra, the audition process is simple.

“Players need to prepare a couple solo and orchestra pieces to perform for our conductor, Roger Zahab, and he evaluates their performance,” Alford said.

According to Zahab, almost none of the orchestra’s members are music majors and only a handful pursue music professionally. Additionally, there is a wide range of musical experience, with some having spent years learning their instrument while others have only picked up theirs recently. 

Sheet music used during Wednesday’s symphony orchestra concert in Bellefield Hall auditorium.
(Nate Yonamine | Staff Photographer )

Zahab said the orchestra’s lack of music majors should not minimize their talent or passion for music. He added that the orchestra’s ability to perform four distinct pieces of music with such grace is a testament to their abilities.

Robbie Fishel, a junior computer science major who plays the viola, said he credits the program for helping him improve his musicianship within a group setting.

“It is one of my favorite parts of the week,” Fishel said. “I personally have been playing since second grade, and my time at Pitt has been vastly different because we are trying to gel as a group.” 

Alford emphasized the aspect of playing as a group and noted that in his time with the orchestra, he has performed more new material than he has anywhere else.

A violinist plays during Wednesday’s symphony orchestra concert in Bellefield Hall auditorium.
(Nate Yonamine | Staff Photographer )

“More so than previous orchestras, I have performed many contemporary pieces with Pitt’s orchestra,” Alford said. “Also, I have been given the opportunity to perform a concerto, which certainly makes my experience with this orchestra stand out.”

Zahab became the director of Pitt’s Symphony Orchestra roughly 29 years ago, during a time when Pitt was trying to get rid of the program. The fact that the orchestra program remains alive is proof of his passion for music. 

“My greatest happiness as a musician is working with this orchestra,” Zahab said.

The orchestra will host another concert on Dec. 7, as well as Feb. 22 and April 19 of next year. Full program information is available on the music department’s webpage.