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Symphony Book Club hopes to relate ideas on page to music on stage

Since a good discussion depends on different points of view, the Pittsburgh Symphony Book Club has a built-in advantage. Its eight meetings during the 2010-11 season will explore historical novels, biographies and popular science about music, or related to it, with members of the orchestra sharing the musician's perspective.

"It helps our audience have a deeper connection to music," says Alison Bolton, the symphony's manager of audience engagement, artistic planning and festivals. WQED-FM's Jim Cunningham will be the host, leading the discussion between music lovers and musicians about a different book each session. At some meetings, the book's author will join the discussion by phone or Skype, a software program for video calls via the internet.

The book club is part of the symphony's Explore and Engage activities, which includes composers of the year speaking from the stage at subscription concerts and the display of historical boards in the lobby. The club is a collaboration with the Carnegie Libraries of Pittsburgh and WQED-FM.

"We're delighted to have it," says Kathy Logan, head of the Carnegie Libraries' music department. "Getting discussions going about interesting books in music couldn't be more central to the library's purpose."

The first book club meeting will be Tuesday evening and look at "A Devil to Play: One Man's Year-Long Quest to Master the Orchestra's Most Difficult Instrument" (Harper, $23.99), by Jasper Rees, about his attempt to conquer the French horn.

Symphony principal horn William Caballero is a perfect person to discuss it, because he's been working on attaining mastery of the horn since he was a teenager.

"I think for the lay person, the book will be very interesting. For a player, you can relate," he says. "But, when I was reading, my mind shut down on historical facts. I don't want to hear about the horn before Christ."

The book's subtitle about a quest for mastery in a year doesn't ring true for Caballero.

"I'm trying not to look back until I retire, but it's not really fair to say someone is a master of anything. If one wants to be good, they need to continue to grow with it. I can relate to the nerves and mistakes. It's a process I've been given a better opportunity to deal with. I was able to improve my talent via school. Here I have a job that gives me the opportunity to perform 170 to 185 concerts a year. It has to make one better."

Several of the books correlate with symphony concerts, such as one on composer Gustav Mahler shortly before music director Manfred Honeck leads two weeks of concerts featuring Mahler, and a book by pianist Helene Grimaud the week she'll play a concerto with the symphony.

All book clubs meetings start at 6 p.m. Tuesdays in the music department of the Carnegie Library, Oakland. Admission is free, but seating is limited. Call 412-622-3105 to register.

Additional Information:

Book club schedule

Oct. 26: 'Violin Dreams' by Arnold Steinhardt, with violinist Mark Huggins

Nov. 30: 'This is Your Brain on Music' by Daniel J. Levitin, with violist Penny Brill

Jan. 18: 'Winter Fire' by William Trotter, with violist Paul Silver

Feb. 1: 'Artists in Exile' by Joseph Horowitz, with cellist Mikhail Istomin

March 1: 'The Rest is Noise' by Alex Ross, with cellist Hampton Mallory

April 5: 'Mahler' by Michael Kennedy, with trombonist James Nova

May 10: 'Wild Harmonies by Helene Grimaud, with hornist Robert Lauver

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