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Review: Sting and PSO combine forces to remix the classics

By Sharon Eberson

Sting is at Heinz Hall this week to get personal with Pittsburgh audiences. He is here not only to sing his greatest hits, but to tell the stories behind his storied lyrics, backed by the “world-renowned” – Sting’s words – Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. 

The classical music venue in the heart of Downtown does not hold the rock star’s usual arena- or stadium-sized crowd, most evident as one of rock ’n’ roll’s most revered elder statesman arrived onstage dressed for a different type of Sting concert. No skin-tight T’s for him on Monday night in Pittsburgh. Under his tailored suit, he sported a Steve Jobs-style black turtleneck, hugging his sleek, 71-year-old body. 

He will suit up again in April when he returns to Las Vegas for a residency, titled Sting: My  Songs. For his Heinz Hall debut, Sting, With the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra offered those songs aplenty, but performed anew.

Sting and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, for the first of two sold-out concerts at Heinz Hall January 9-10.

On Monday, the first of two sold-out concerts at Heinz Hall, the dozens of musicians behind him were all the sparkle he needed. The orchestrations added texture and depth to a catalog of hit after hit, interspersed with songs for the stage – three from Sting’s Tony-nominated score for The Last Ship – and What Could Have Been, from Netflix’s artfully animated series Arcane: League of Legends.

For the latter, PSO violinist Justine Campagna stepped out front with the rock star for a featured role. The orchestra, led by assistant conductor Moon Doh, honed in on some of Sting’s most beloved and beautiful melodies, such as Fields of Gold, among 18 songs in more than two hours, including an intermission.

There were times the concert, the first of Sting’s two nights with the PSO, felt as intimate as a cabaret, when the singer talked about his roots in a hometown much like the Pittsburgh of old – in his case, hard by the North Sea and built on coal and steel and the dying ship-building industry. 

There also were moments when Sting moved aside to watch with the rest of us, cupping his hands and raising them to the swell of dozens of musicians on hits such as Every Little Thing She Does is Magic. 

And, inevitably, there were times when the rocker inside burst forth, onto a setting usually reserved for another style of classical music. From start to finish, Sting gave a full accounting of the still incredible range of his distinct, soulful voice, growl to falsetto still very much intact. 

Opening night wasn’t always a harmonious musical union. Especially in the first half of the concert, the orchestra often enveloped Sting’s vocals, and his voice faded into the melange of sound, more musical instrument than singer-storyteller. 

As the night drew to a close, however, singer and orchestra were very much in sync, raising the bar on two of Sting’s greatest hits from his Police days. On King of Pain and Every Breath You Take, his voice soared, clear, precise and punctuated by the musicians behind him.

Sting the activist was on hand as well. While his Vegas shows feature an environmental theme, here, he used his music to focus in on the human cost of tyranny, featuring the prescient 1985 song Russians – a late addition to the set list, he said. 

He brought out his guitar only occasionally and saved spotlighting his own musicianship for the finale, Fragile, a song “for all those born beneath an angry star.” He dedicated it to the young women of Iran.

The singer had noted from the start that he had been away from our fair city for far too long, estimating it had been 14 years – July 2008, with his Police bandmates, at the Post Gazette Pavilion on a bill with Elvis Costello & The Imposters. Before that, the band played the arena, Civic and Mellon, in 1982 and ‘83.

So anytime Sting appears in Pittsburgh is a special event, and absence definitely made the heart grow fonder for the 17-time Grammy Award-winner. The man born Gordon Sumner also has four Oscar nominations and a catalog that began with a reggae album and includes I Hung My Head, which was covered by “the late, great Johnny Cash” and sung by Sting on Monday to reflect his admiration for American country music. 

Admittedly, “I lack authenticity” when it comes to American country music, said the man from Northern England, who opened the concert with Englsihman in New York, then headed into better-known territory.

Leading up to Roxanne, Sting told of his early days playing in barely filled bars and making just enough money to stay in seedy hotels. In one such hotel in Paris, a place also frequented by “ladies of the night,” he happened upon a poster for a play he knew a lot about – Cyrano de Bergerac. Sting described the swordsman and romantic poet with a very big nose who was in love with a woman named …
“Roxanne!” 

That wasn’t the last time the audience was prompted to join in. It was an evidently fan-filled audience, knowing when to sing along and sing alone, as dictated by the man at centerstage. In a classic rock concert move, Sting brought up a young woman to dance on stage, and she clearly loved her moment in the spotlight, much to Sting’s amusement.

The man for all seasons and genres has spent decades defying genres and expectations, so the fact that he can move from stadium to Broadway to Vegas fits his ever-expanding universe. That he would choose to front the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra reflects a similar agility and expansiveness, with the PSO’s powerhouse musicians delivering Shostakovich one week and reaching new audiences with a video-game soundtrack the next.

That willingness to push boundaries brought Sting back to Pittsburgh after too long an absence, and created a collaboration that hopefully will bring him back soon, for whatever’s next up his sleeve.

SET LIST

Englishman in New York

Roxanne

Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic

Fields of Gold

When We Dance

I Hung My Head

Why Should I Cry for You?

The End of the Game

Practical Arrangement

What Say You, Meg?

Shape of My Heart

The Last Ship

What Could Have Been

Russians

King of Pain

Every Breath You Take

Desert Rose

Fragile



Categories: Reviews

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1 reply

  1. Wonderful job. You captured the magic of the evening perfectly.

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