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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Classical Music: Knights at the PSO

Thursday, September 08, 2005

By Marylynne Pitz

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's opening gala, "A Knight to Remember," requires the talents of three conductors -- one waving a baton, one wearing a headset in a television truck and a third with her eyes on the clock as 60 Duquesne Club waiters serve dinner to 500 guests.

Using giant chess pieces as table decorations, event producer Nancy Byrnes will create the effect of a giant chess game inside a tent that will be go up on Penn Avenue between Sixth and Seventh streets at 9 tonight. There, invited guests will dine before the concert Saturday and return afterward for dessert and a reception with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and Sir Andrew Davis, the PSO's new artistic adviser.

The strategic planning required to create this gala may not rival the brilliance of Bobby Fischer's variation of the "Sicilian Defense," but it will entail some slick moves. Complete with heralding trumpets, courtly jesters, Mrs. Shakespeare and flag and balloon drops, the gala aims to emulate the spirit of the Last Night of the Proms, a British music festival held each year in London's Royal Albert Hall.

Davis will address both concert and television audiences. KDKA anchor Ken Rice will emcee the live broadcast of the concert, which will air on UPN, KDKA's sister station. Philip Byrd, a veteran of live performances on television, and his staff from Brandenburg Productions will direct the broadcast.

"It'll be a little bit of a zoo," said Byrd, a pixieish man with long white hair and enough energy to power a few generators.

A trained trombone player, he will direct eight cameras during the performance.

"We don't wing it," Byrd said, showing off his musical score annotated in red pen and green dots. "We treat the cameramen very much like the conductor treats the musicians. The musical score becomes our shooting script."

"The audience will be very aware of television," he added. "Television is part of the fun. The first half of the evening is serious music. The second half is serious fun."

One camera operator will be stationed outside Heinz Hall to capture the arrival of the evening's stars. That footage will be edited and used during the evening's live broadcast, Byrd said.

Cocktails for 500 invited guests, who are paying $500 apiece, begin at 5:30 p.m. in the garden outside Heinz Hall. Byrnes said the dinner could not be held inside Heinz Hall because the building will be open to the public at 7 p.m. So, a 240-foot-long tent will be erected between the crosswalk on Sixth Street and reach to the Heinz Hall loading dock, which juts out onto Penn Avenue.

Since you can't stake a tent into a city street, it will be held down by water barrels. Byrnes had to obtain a city permit to block off the street. Concrete barricades will be erected at strategic intersections, but "all the parking lots are still open," she stressed.

Byrnes traveled to San Clemente, Calif., before deciding to use the 32-piece fiberglass chess set. The pieces range in size from the 6-foot-tall kings to pawns that are about 2 feet tall. The set will be auctioned during the evening.

"If we don't get the minimum bid we need for them, we just send them back," Byrnes said.

The event is sold out. The live broadcast airs on UPN, sister station to KDKA, from 8 to 10:30 p.m. Saturday. The concert will be rebroadcast at noon Sept. 17 on KDKA-TV.