The Pittsburgh Steeline, the official drum line of the Steelers

Written by Elizabeth Bloom on .

ICYMI: The Pittsburgh Steeline, the official drum line of the Pittsburgh Steelers, speaks to a growing affiliation between professional sports franchises and drum lines. Julia Rendleman made another great video that embodies what this crew is all about:

The connection between drum lines and NFL teams goes back more than a decade. The Denver Broncos' Stampede drum line, which claims to be the first official drum line in the NFL, was established in 2003. (That group has since been joined by a brass band.) 

There are plenty of drum lines in other leagues, too, including the NBA and MLS. Of course, marching bands — which have brass, woodwind and percussion sections — have long been associated with high school and college sports. 

These drum lines really emerge from the worlds of drum corps and indoor percussion.  Drum-corps culture has been known to dip into intriguing musical experiments, as Alex Ross, music critic of The New Yorker, has observed (see this, this, this, this and this). 

Denise Odello, assistant professor of music at the University of Minnesota, Morris, spoke about the evolution of drum-corps music from patriotic songs to American songbook to more recent forays into Bartok, Stravinsky and Puccini. (Phantom Regiment produced an 11-minute rendition of "Turandot" for the Drum Corps International championships in 2012.)

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Best of 2015 — Classical Music

Written by Elizabeth Bloom on .

This year was packed with memorable classical music performances: an ambitious microtonal music festival, a venerated composer performing his masterpiece in a fishy venue and more than one goodbye to musicians significant to the local (and national) classical music landscape. Let's get started: 

Bruckner's Symphony No. 9, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Manfred Honeck (April 10, Heinz Hall) 

Music director Manfred Honeck's compelling interpretation, coupled with the orchestra's astonishing performance, gave this complex symphony both a meaningful narrative thread and a visceral impact. This repertory is right up the conductor's alley: The PSO was recently nominated for a Grammy for a recording of a different Bruckner symphony, and one can see why.

"Cosi fan tutte," Pittsburgh Opera (Nov. 7, Benedum Center)

This strong production hinged on the inventive stage direction (and vocalism) of baritone Sir Thomas Allen, who played Don Alfonso. Also noteworthy was the portrayal of Fiordiligi by former resident artist Danielle Pastin, who continues to impress with whatever role she plays.

cosiThe cast of Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte," from left: Sir Thomas Allen, Christopher Tiesi, Jennifer Holloway, Danielle Pastin, Hadleigh Adams and Sari Gruber. (Julia Rendleman/Post-Gazette)

Beyond: Microtonal Music Festival, Music on the Edge (Feb. 28-March 1, Andy Warhol Museum and University of Pittsburgh)

Pitt's new music presenter went all out for this weekend festival focused on microtonal music. Especially noteworthy were performances by Mantra Percussion and the FLUX Quartet, who together premiered MOTE co-director Mathew Rosenblum's intriguing work, "Ostatnia runda." 

microtonalMantra Percussion (Photo: Ian Douglas)

Pablo Villegas, guitar, Chamber Music Pittsburgh (July 9, Kelly Strayhorn Theater)

Mr. Villegas, who has appeared twice with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in as many seasons, gave an astonishing recital that tackled an array of solo guitar music from Spain and elsewhere. This marks the first time that Chamber Music Pittsburgh's three-year-old "Just Summer" series has been included in the top 10 list, and that's worth noting: Perhaps the main series at Carnegie Music Hall, which is packed with string quartets, could learn a little something from its summertime counterpart.

Smetana's "Ma Vlast," PSO, Jiri Belohlavek (Nov. 13, Heinz Hall)

It's not every day that you get to hear an eminent European conductor for the first time — particularly leading one of the great pieces of music from his homeland. So the Heinz Hall debut of Jiri Belohlavek, principal conductor and music director of the Czech Philharmonic, was a treat, and the orchestra glowed throughout this performance of "Ma Vlast." If I were to pick one other conductor making his PSO debut to bring back in future seasons, I would choose Krzysztof Urbanski, music director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, who impressed in works by Prokofiev, Khachaturian and Mussorgsky.

Anonymous 4, Renaissance and Baroque (Oct. 3, Calvary Episcopal Church)

Sigh, so long, Anonymous 4. The female vocal quartet, which will cease to perform together after this month, gave a beautiful performance that surveyed its large catalog of music. The selections ranged from its core specialty, medieval chant, to more recent forays into Americana. The concert was presented by early music organization Renaissance and Baroque. 

"Premieres and Pulitzers," Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble (July 17, City Theatre)

PNME, celebrating its 40th season, often adds theatrical elements to performances of contemporary music, but there were no frills in concert, featuring works by the late PNME founder David Stock, Steve Reich, Dan Visconti and Roger Zahab. Nope, just strong ensemble-playing by the group that assembles only over the summer.

The Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh, East Liberty Presbyterian Church (Oct. 11, East Liberty Presbyterian Church)

Sigh, so long, Betsy Burleigh. The Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh's well-respected music director stepped down from her position with this all-Durufle program, centered on the French composer's "Requiem," which received a deeply felt performance by the choir. 

"The Winter's Tale," Quantum Theatre, Chatham Baroque, Attack Theatre (Sept. 16, Union Trust Building)

Three of the city's most adventurous groups in their respective art forms came together to produce a world-premiere opera...made up of old music. "The Winter's Tale" was a pasticcio of musical selections from the baroque era, mashed up with Shakespeare's text, dance and theatrical staging, all in the beautiful Union Trust Building.

winters tale"The Winter's Tale." Foreground: Katy Williams (Shepherdess), Rebecca Belczyk (Perdita), Dan Kempson (Florizel). Background: Kaitlin Dann (dancer), Anthony Williams (dancer), Dane Toney (dancer), Robert Frankenberry (Polixenes), Shannon Kessler Dooley (Camillo), Ashley Williams (dancer). (Photo: Heather Mull)

Frederic Rzewski, "The People United Will Never Be Defeated" (April 18, Wholey's fish market)

Frederic Rzewski, one of the world's great composers, performed his piano masterpiece "The People United Will Never Be Defeated" for throngs of fish sandwich buyers and music devotees at the Strip District fish market. This remarkable spectacle, which new-music group Alia Musica Pittsburgh helped to organize, even got a mention in the New York Times' end-of-year roundup.

rzewskiFrederic Rzewski performs at Wholey's in the Strip District. (Lake Fong/Post-Gazette)

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More on woodwind reed-making in Pittsburgh (and elsewhere)

Written by Elizabeth Bloom on .

I had a lot of fun working on a story that delved into the fine art and craft of woodwind reed-making.

Cindy reedPittsburgh Symphony Orchestra principal oboist Cynthia Koledo DeAlmeida uses a gouging machine on the cane used to make oboe reeds at her home in Franklin Park. (Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette) 

Be sure to watch PG photographer Julia Rendleman's excellent video of Pittsburgh Symphony principal contrabassoonist Jim Rodgers demonstrating the reed-making process:

Here are a few things that didn't make it into the piece:

• PSO principal oboist Cynthia Koledo DeAlmeida has brought current and former music directors Manfred Honeck and Mariss Jansons, as well as perennial PSO favorite Gianandrea Noseda, into her reed-making "Dungeon," so they can see what it takes to prepare a reed.
• Ms. DeAlmeida's style of reed — along with much of her musical approach — hails from a tradition established by longtime Philadelphia Orchestra oboist and Curtis Institute of Music teacher Marcel Tabuteau.
• Mr. Rodgers has harvested his own cane in California about commitment to the craft!
• Jack Howell, PSO principal bass clarinetist, wrote a book on bamboo fly-fishing rods, called "The Lovely Reed: An Enthusiast's Guide to Building Bamboo Fly Rods."

Are there any other unusual or specialized musical practices that you'd like to read about? If so, shoot me an email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .  

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GPAC, Pittsburgh Opera weigh in on Pennsylvania budget

Written by Elizabeth Bloom on .

Local arts organizations are weighing in on the ongoing budget impasse in Harrisburg.

Currently, tickets for arts and cultural institutions are exempt from Pennsylvania sales tax, but that exemption could be eliminated under the new budget. Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council sent out an alert today to express its opposition to eliminating that exemption. Here's the letter from CEO Mitch Swain:

Dear Colleague:

The PA budget negotiations have regressed to a degree that should be of great concern to you and to the entire arts & culture community of Greater Pittsburgh.

Legislators have not come to an agreement on how increases in the Personal Income Tax and/or the Sales Tax can help finalize a bipartisan budget. Those two sources of revenue are huge, and if they are not an option, it means that many other tax options must be considered to close the deficit.

Budget negotiators predictably have turned their attention to eliminating the sales tax exemption on numerous items, including but not limited to tickets sales and admissions for the arts & culture. You will hear varying versions of what is and is not on the list for consideration, but let's be clear: imposing a sales tax on arts & culture attendees would have a detrimental impact upon a sector of our society that significantly contributes to the economic vitality and quality of life in communities across the Commonwealth. It doesn't make sense to apply sales tax to nonprofit organizations or to schools and charities.

Make your voice heard: take a moment to remind your state legislators that imposing a new tax on our sector is not the way to go. Call today and tomorrow so that we can act swiftly and with unity, before Wednesday. Tell them that you do not support a potential expansion to the sales tax base as it would negatively impact nonprofit organizations that provide education, access, and outreach to underserved communities throughout Pennsylvania.

Visit this link and find your legislators under Find Officials by typing in your zip code. Know that your legislators track every phone call and email they receive on this issue, so please take a couple of minutes and make this critical call, today.


Mitch Swain, CEO

Pittsburgh Opera, which is a member of GPAC, agrees with that position. The opera company had the following statement:

"Pittsburgh Opera works very hard to make opera accessible to everyone in the region. Tickets to our productions at the Benedum Center start at just $12. We are proud of our low ticket prices. Subjecting non-profits to sales tax would penalize all consumers by making it more expensive to attend these performances, and would most hurt those who can least afford it."

Additional information is available on the GPAC website



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Liner Notes Vol. XX

Written by Elizabeth Bloom on .

Happy (belated) Thanksgiving! Here are a few pieces of music journalism to consider as you finish up those leftovers.

From T Magazine, pairing Josh Bell with Champagne

From The Monthly, has the art of listening been lost? (This author argues yes.) 

From the New York Times, a review of Pittsburgh-based Music on the Edge's New York debut 

From the Detroit Free Press, an assessment of the world premiere of Tod Machover's "Symphony in D," commissioned by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra 

From the New York Times, a profile of the composer Andrew Norman, who is finding new paths for symphonic music 

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