Pittsburgh Symphony concertmaster plays for Pirates' crowd
Growing up in San Francisco, Noah Bendix-Balgley shivered in the bleachers at Candlestick Park cheering for Barry Bonds, Matt Williams and the rest of the Giants. Lately, he has become Pirates fan. As a participant, he likes to run, shoot hoops and play for the company softball team, mostly at first base.
“I'm not much of a power hitter,” the tall, lanky left-hander said. “I spray line drives. Try to hit doubles.”
But on Monday, Bendix-Balgley walked to the plate and twice went deep at chilly PNC Park. His company is the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Instead of a maple bat, he wielded a violin made partly of maple. From that came his own renditions of “God Bless America” and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” rich mixtures of sounds featuring “different voices,” as he put it.
The Opening Day crowd responded with rousing ovations, which was most of the noise that emanated from the ballpark during the Pirates' 3-1 loss to the Cubs.
Not only does he lead the violin section, Bendix-Balgley is the PSO's 28-year-old concertmaster. Asked to describe his job, he used an analogy befitting the occasion. Or, he wanted to make sure that even a sportswriter could understand.
“The conductor, waving his baton, is sort of the manager,” he said. “Making the overall decisions. How fast we're playing, the kind of interpretation. The concertmaster is like the team captain. I lead my own section, and I communicate with the other leaders of other sections.”
Bendix-Balgley, whose great-grandfather was a PSO violinist more than a century ago, has other duties. He stands before the concert and signals for the orchestra to tune, and offers handshakes to guest performers.
Mainly, though, “I lead by example,” he said. “By the way I play. It involves a lot of paying attention to a lot of things going on at the same time. What the conductor is doing, what the people next to you are doing, what the people on the other side of the stage are doing.”
But before the ballgame he was out there alone, a man and his violin, which was borrowed. It was cold (41 degrees at game time), with rain and snow earlier. Because of that he chose not to use his own violin, crafted about 200 years ago and thus more sensitive to the elements. The substitute was recently made, in Pittsburgh.
Practicing inside a large interview room near the Pirates' dugout and clubhouse, Bendix-Balgley paused and smiled when a Pirates employee brought him his own jersey, black, with “Noah BB” lettered on the back above the gold No. 1.
His only concern seemed to be weather-related, how the change in temperature and humidity outdoors would affect the violin's “tension and tuning.” So he made sure that he went outside, which turned out to be sunny, a few minutes early “so that the violin has a little bit of a chance to adjust,” he said.
Conditions were more favorable for Bendix-Balgley and his violin before his first Pirates pregame appearance last Memorial Day. But he is no stranger to the cold. He graduated from Indiana and lived in Europe for several years. Then there were those Giants games at the 'Stick.
“The world's coldest stadium,” he said. “I remember games in the middle of the summer and the fog rolls in and people would be huddled in their sleeping bags.”
He brought his batting glove along but chose not to use it. All went well. “Yeah, it was fine. Pretty emotional,” he said, citing a tribute to Marine Cpl. Brandon Rumbaugh, who lost his legs in an IED blast in Afghanistan.
Then, Bendix-Balgley left, hustling to the airport for a flight to New York and a scheduled recital Monday night — a much longer performance before a much smaller crowd.