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Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's gala transcends music

| Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Cellest Yo-Yo Ma at a previous appearance with the Pittsburgh Symphony.
Yo-Yo Ma performs in ``Live From Lincoln Center'' Tuesday on PBS (check local listings).
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Manfred Honeck conducts the PIttsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's annual gala is much more than a concert, special though the concert always is.

The gala is a themed party to open the season with a festive atmosphere and a big influx of money. It is the symphony's biggest fundraising event of the year and therefore will play an important role in reaching the goal of a balanced budget, after years of large deficits.

The gala's theme this year is “Once Upon a Time,” which guides the concert's program of colorful and fantasy-filled music.

“When we do music that has a fairy tale as a theme, it's so easy to go into the story and feel it because we all experienced it in childhood,” music director Manfred Honeck says.

Noted cellist Yo-Yo Ma will be the soloist with Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony at the season opening gala concert on Sept. 27 at Heinz Hall, Downtown.

Ma will play two pieces by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky with the orchestra: the Andante cantabile from his String Quartet No. 1 and “Rococo Variations” — both pieces he recorded more than 20 years ago with Lorin Maazel and the symphony on a Grammy-winning album.

The rest of the program is Antonin Dvorak's Carnival Overture, the Dream Pantomime from “Hansel and Gretel” by Engelbert Humperdinck, and ballet music by Sergei Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky.

“We remember so many things when we do music that has fairy tales as a theme,” says Honeck, who thinks of his childhood, as well as his story-telling tradition with his six children.

“When the family was all together, such as for New Year's and Christmas dinners, we always had time for telling stories. I'd read a story or make up my own stories, fairy tales, I made up for my kids,” he says.

The experience of performing with Yo-Yo Ma can feel like a dream come true.

“Everyone knows what a great soloist he is,” Honeck says. “His ability is not only fantastic technique and musicality but also his attention to the orchestra, listening to the orchestra and going with that. His attitude is not ‘I am the star and you have to follow,' though, of course, if we need to we do. Somehow, he takes things up spontaneously.”

The conductor recalls that after playing the first movement of Antonin Dvorak's Cello Concerto here in December 2011, Ma stood up and told the orchestra it was “fantastic.”

“It is a real pleasure to work with him, because, as a human, he is one of the nicest men,” Honeck says. “It's amazing the spirit he brings into the hall.”

Concert-only tickets are available, but most of the revenue is raised by black-tie events before and after the performance. The gala package, which is sold out, includes valet parking, a pre-concert cocktail hour, silent auction, a post-concert formal dinner and dessert reception with Honeck.

“Once Upon a Time” Soiree tickets are still available at $175 to $225, and differ from the gala package in omitting the silent auction and finishing at a reception with refreshments and live music with the symphony musicians at the nearby Fairmont Hotel.

Mark Kanny is classical music critic of Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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