Trey Anastasio and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra redefine classical rock

Concert review
February 15, 2012 12:19 pm

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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.

Scott Mervis: smervis@post-gazette.com; 412-263-2576.
First Published 2012-02-15 10:28:03

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