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The lives of students, professors, and community neighbors routinely intersect in an unlikely place—a campus concert hall. For 30 years, the University of Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra has been attracting musicians from all walks of life, with up-tempo results.

In Harmony

Cara J. Hayden

Back row, Hendrix, Zahab, and Levin; front row Fleming and Albani. (Lisa Kyle photo)

Rhythmically, she grabs a jug hold, toes a nook, stretches her other arm, and scales higher on the rock wall.

Rest. Again, she reaches, grips, balances, pulls, strains. Rest.

It’s Wednesday afternoon in sophomore Sarah Albani’s frenzied week, and she has almost reached the ceiling of Trees Hall on a craggy climbing wall.

Tonight, she’ll exert herself through music, in similar ways to rock climbing.

As an orchestral musician, she’ll balance her instrument’s tones with others, rest between playing bursts of notes on her sheet music, and strain to heighten the emotional mood of the compositions.

It’s a process she looks forward to each week. And she’s not the only one.

While Albani ascends the rock wall, one of her fellow orchestra members concentrates on a solo task in a humming laboratory across campus. In Langley Hall, senior Andrew Levin slices brain matter, dividing it into thin pieces that can be studied with an electron microscope. When he performs with the orchestra this evening, he’ll silently subdivide the beat marked by the conductor’s baton into quarters, eighths, and sixteenths to ensure he’ll play his notes at exactly the right time. He has spent hours practicing the music, and he expects his performance to be as precise as his research.

As Levin hovers over a lab bench, another member of the orchestra shows schoolchildren to their seats in Pittsburgh’s Byham Theater. Alva Popey Fleming is an usher for a matinee piano recital, and she appears to be everyone’s grandmother, all cottony hair and pink-lipped smiles. She’s delighted to see a new generation experience the thrill of classical music.

As Fleming passes out the last program, a man hunches over an orchestral score at his desk in Pitt’s music building. Orchestra director Roger Zahab scribbles arrows and apostrophes above the notes, reminders of where he’ll need to bridle the tempo or accentuate the dynamics.

The concert is tonight. At dusk, these four will be together once again, pursuing a shared passion for music—and, it seems, something more.

They all belong to the University of Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble composed of undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, and local community members. No other campus organization brings such a diverse group together weekly.

Offstage in Bellefield Hall’s auditorium, rock climber Albani swishes rosin on the bowhair, making it sticky so there will be more friction and a better sound when she draws the bow across her metal viola strings. She’s wearing a sleek black dress for this concert, but she’s also shown up for rehearsals wearing athletic shorts and a backpack for rock climbing. Purple glasses are her style, she calls conductor Zahab a “cool dude,” and she’s pretty good at video games. She has been playing the viola for more than a decade, getting her start in a Youngstown, Ohio, elementary school music program.

During her college search two years ago, she looked for schools that offered biology and her brand of recreational sports. Most importantly, though, she wanted to find a university where she could also continue playing her viola. When she discovered Pitt, she called the music department and asked: Is there an ensemble I can participate in, even if I don’t major in music? It’s a common question that Zahab fields from many prospective students, and Albani was hooked when she learned about the Pitt symphony orchestra. The University typically attracts students with a variety of interests, and many seek schools where music can be part of their broader education. During the past 15 years, the orchestra’s size has tripled, and during the past four years, the number of students requesting private lessons from Pitt’s music department has jumped by 30 percent.

When Albani finishes rosining her bow, she tucks her instrument underneath her chin and begins tuning. The viola is the mellow sister of the violin—it’s a few inches larger and has a lower-pitched timbre. It’s not as popular as the violin or cello. Albani, now pursuing majors in both biology and music, likes to be different. “I chose the viola,” she says, “because everyone plays the violin.”

Soon, she walks on stage, where musicians are practicing tough passages from tonight’s repertoire. The auditorium fills with the sounds of honking wind instruments and purring strings. Most of the players hail from the Schools of Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Law, Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, and the College of General Studies. Some simply live nearby.

At stage left, usher-grandmother Fleming is fingering a scale on her violin. She has played in the orchestra for about 25 years and is one of several community musicians who are members of Pitt’s symphony, which was founded by the music department in 1976 as an educational and cultural enrichment for the University and the Pittsburgh community. At rehearsal a few weeks ago, the orchestra celebrated her 80th birthday with flowers, candy, and a symphonic performance of “Happy Birthday.” Her presence is an inspiration to the rest of the members.

On the conductor’s podium, Zahab rustles through the pages of scores he penciled earlier, searching for sections he wants to rehearse before the crowds arrive. He’s also dressed in concert black—slacks and a crewneck that match his onyx eyes and swirls of short hair. He became the symphony’s music director in 1993. Since then, the group has grown in size and talent, paralleling similar changes in Pitt’s student body during the past decade. It’s the first performance of the school year, and he’s hoping it will be “high-spirited and insightful,” his goal for every concert.

With a sudden clap, Zahab commands the musicians’ attention and raises his baton to begin rehearsal. Fleming’s music-stand partner, Sally Schweitzer, a retired school teacher, slips into her seat just in time. Fleming can tell that she’s had a stressful day. They’ve played together for “years and years.” Schweitzer, age 75 or 76 (she’s not too concerned with the math), has been in the orchestra for about as long as Fleming. Earlier today, she planned to play tennis but ended up “hauling sugar” for her husband’s candy business.

Zahab bobs his baton and the orchestra launches into a section of Le Carnaval romain, a concert overture by Hector Berlioz based on material from his 1838 opera Benevenuto Cellini. Fleming and Schweitzer jerk their bows in unison, enjoying the light-hearted, amusing mood of the showpiece that evokes images of clowns tottering on stilts. Music has been a lifelong endeavor for both of them. Like most musicians in the orchestra, they began playing their instruments in elementary school. Back then, they paid a quarter or two a week for lessons.

Fleming feels confident and young as she moves her bow across the strings. This is one of the only times when the tremors in her right arm subside. She suffered a stroke two years ago but won’t let it set her back. As an usher, she enjoyed listening to the afternoon piano concert at the Byham, but it wasn’t the same as playing. The thrill is in the physicality, in the communal effort, in being engrossed in the music.

Abruptly, Zahab waves his arms like a baseball umpire signaling “safe,” and the orchestra peters to a stop. There isn’t much time, and there’s a lot of material to run through. He wants to make sure the tempo transitions will be flawless during the performance. Murmuring can be heard from the lobby where the audience is gathering. The chatter is drowned out when Zahab gives another downbeat and the orchestra surges again.

Pitt’s symphony performs at least three concerts each semester. The Halloween show has been among the most popular—the musicians sometimes wear costumes and perform spooky works like Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain or Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre. One year, Zahab dressed as a wizard for a performance of Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” from Fantasia. Tonight, though, the performers are dressed professionally in concert black.

When the orchestra finishes warming up, the audience flows through the heavy, wooden doors of the Bellefield concert hall, gripping yellow programs. Roommates and classmates have come to show support. Relatives, including Albani’s family, have traveled hundreds of miles from out of state to listen to this evening’s performance.

Finally, the show is on. At the center of the hushed auditorium, Zahab raises his arms, balancing them as if he were a ballerina about to dip into a plié. The crowd is enveloped in darkness, but the stage is brilliant. Spotlights reflect off the glossy wood of the bassoons. Strings and horns glint. Zahab’s arms still hover.

Suddenly, he stabs the air with his baton and POW! the percussionist pounds a bass drum. Silence. The drum thunders again, then rests. This sequence continues for several measures, leading into a patriotic call from the brass section—trumpets, trombones, and French horns. The piece is Fanfare for the Common Man—now a signature anthem of the Olympic games—written by American composer Aaron Copland in 1942.

One trumpet melody pierces through the rest, leading the fanfare. The player is Levin, the student who was busy in the lab this afternoon. He’s one of the top musicians in the orchestra, a senior with three majors—neuroscience, chemistry, and music. During his college search, he considered studying trumpet performance and was even accepted at Juilliard, the nation’s most prestigious music school. Instead, he decided to pursue a medical career and chose Pitt for his first step in the process. The University awarded him a full academic scholarship.

Lips pursed against the mouthpiece of his trumpet, Levin produces a smooth, rounded tone that reverberates off the pink acoustic shells on the stage’s ceiling and resonates to the back of the balcony. Occasionally, he glances up from his sheet music to check the pace of the baton, subdividing the beats as precisely as he sliced brain matter.

Zahab marshals the precise coordination of the brass and drums. When the parts intersect, he pops onto his toes, almost hopping. In rehearsals, he has been known to stomp with excitement when the orchestra outdoes itself. Other times, he has pounded the podium with frustration when one orchestra section is out of sync with another. Levin calls him a “wound-up ball of fire.”

In fact, Zahab is composing a trumpet concerto that will feature Levin as a soloist with the orchestra. “I really love his sound—he has a very artistic soul,” Zahab says about Levin’s playing. “He’s someone who’s very serious in orchestra and music theory classes. I would like all of my colleagues to be some version of that mix.” The concerto will showcase the unique lyric quality of Levin’s tone, which he wasn’t able to display as principal trumpet of Pitt’s marching band. The concerto will be performed in March, during a national conference of the Music Library Association and Society for American Music.

Zahab has composed about 250 works during his 25-year music career. His pieces are known for their distinctive melodic lines, a feature he credits to the music of his upbringing. He was reared in Akron, Ohio, by working-class parents—his mother sang in the Bell Telephone company choir—and they listened to Arabic folk music and Byzantine chants passed down from Lebanese ancestors. His melodic interests probably also kindled his interest in the violin. He’s a professional violinist who performs regularly with Pitt’s Music on the Edge series. In fact, he has performed and composed for events nationwide. Before joining the University, he taught in Ohio at Mount Union College and the University of Akron.

On stage, the fanfare concludes with Levin and the other brass players sustaining a long, high note, reaching an emotional peak similar to Albani’s rock-climbing heights. Applause erupts. Among those clapping is Tison Street, a mustachioed gentleman from Boston and the composer of the next selection, Symphony V: Colonial Scenes, which he wrote in 2004. His music has been performed by some of the leading U.S. orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic and Los Angeles Philharmonic.

The Pitt orchestra plays symphonies by Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Schumann, and other well-known composers but, under Zahab’s direction, new compositions have been an important element of the symphony’s repertoire, as well. The orchestra, for instance, debuts music written by Pitt graduate students, offering a unique opportunity for PhD candidates to compose complex works. It’s also an important learning experience for the musicians—Albani, Fleming, and Levin all say the new works have given them insight into what’s possible in music.

In the last movement of Street’s colonial symphony, a clarinetist is playing elegiac phrases. It’s Roger Hendrix, a biological sciences professor with parted silvery hair and a distinguished manner, who owns a collection of rare clarinets and recorders. He has been playing in the orchestra since its founding, and it doesn’t surprise him that both Levin and Albani are science majors. Over the years, the Pitt symphony has included physicians, engineers, and scientists like him. A codirector of the Pittsburgh Bacteriophage Institute, he sees parallels between science and music. He says rehearsing and performing are similar to conducting lab work and presenting the results, because audiences, like fellow scientists, will give more nuanced evaluations than “yes, no, or 63 percent.” He believes his musical creativity has buoyed his ability to think creatively about science and credits much of his career success to music.

At Pitt, the symphony’s artistic work sustains rock climbers, grandmothers, future doctors, biologists, and many others from different walks of life. The tug that draws them together each week may be more than music. Earlier, Fleming joked that she didn’t expect acquaintances to attend the evening’s concert because her “friends are old, and they won’t come out at night.” Her spouses used to come, but she is twice widowed. Throughout the years, playing music has been therapeutic, bringing comfort in times of loneliness. Pitt’s symphony is family for her, Zahab “like a son.”

As the concert draws to a close, the bows glide in unison. Flakes of rosin sprinkle onto the wood of Albani’s viola as she sways, while Levin counts measures until his entrance. When it’s time, he softly blows air through his trumpet, producing the faint sound of taps in the distance. A percussionist strikes a chime. Then silence. Zahab holds his baton in midair, lingering in that moment between music and applause.

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