Special Shows

Pittsburgh, PA, US
Heinz Hall

Sting makes beautiful music with Pittsburgh Symphony at Heinz Hall...

When Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra first violinist Dylan Naroff found out he was going to have the opportunity to perform with Sting this year, Naroff said he was “geeking out about” it. He learned to appreciate Sting from the vinyl records he inherited from his dad.

But the guy he got to perform with during a two-night engagement with the PSO at Heinz Hall was not exactly his father’s Sting. Mostly gone were the rough edges of Sting’s voice from his punk rock days as lead singer of The Police, sanded down perhaps in part due to his recurring residency at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. On Tuesday night, Sting was a bit more of a crooner than that avant-garde guy from the ’70s and ’80s as he sang his greatest hits reinterpreted with orchestrations.

That was just fine with the capacity crowd of nearly 3,000 that ate up every bit of what Sting was serving up. He and the PSO put on a high-caliber concert that came off as though they had been performing together for 10 years as opposed to just three days (counting Sunday’s rehearsals).

Sting, conductor Moon Doh, orchestra members and the audience shared in a joyous evening in which the gauntlet was thrown down challenging the other acts coming to the Pittsburgh area in 2023 to top it. It won’t be easy.

There was electricity in the building the moment Sting walked on stage in an all-black outfit consisting of a bolero jacket, mock turtleneck and slacks that showed off his svelte physique.

He got the evening started with the perfect song from his repertoire, the bouncy Gershwin-esque “Englishman in New York,” which Sting performed with jaunty aplomb, quickly establishing the rapport he has with the PSO.

Then came the song that got it all started for the Police, the haunting “Roxanne,” sung in a lower register with plenty of yearning for the prostitute it was based on but with much of the punk sound taken out of it.

Sting gave context to the song, as he did with others, telling the audience about the place that inspired it — the seedy Paris hotel the band was staying in during a 1976 tour of France that was home to plenty of business girls and a poster advertising the play “Cyrano de Bergerac.” The central character, of course, loved a woman named Roxanne — or “Roxane” as spelled by the playwright. The song that looked to be the most challenging of the collaboration produced a performance that exceeded even the wildest of expectations.

He followed that up with “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic,” which lent itself beautifully to orchestration and had the audience clapping and singing along with the “E-oh, E-oh, E-oh” part toward the end of the song.

Before slowing things down with “Fields of Gold,” Sting remarked that “I’m having the time of my life with this orchestra.” So was Doh, whose flamboyant, energetic conducting was reminiscent of a young Andre Previn, another conductor who once called Heinz Hall home.

At times, however, as with this song, the orchestra overwhelmed Sting, who is now 71 and doesn’t quite belt them out like he did when he was 21. The voice, though, is sturdy and pleasing. And he can still hit the high notes, including one he held for a long stretch at the end of “When We Dance.”

Sting kept the stories coming, including his set-up of “Why Should I Cry for You?,” which he said was a song about the ambivalence he felt after the death of his father, with whom he had a strained relationship. The small band Sting brought with him — guitarist, bassist and keyboard player — produced a sound that dovetailed especially well with the orchestra on this one.

Throughout the evening, the PSO brought color and richness to Sting’s songs, its soothing sound a juxtaposition with the rough qualities his voice still maintains.

During certain interludes Sting found himself standing back and admiring what the strings and horns were doing. As they took a break for intermission, a member of the audience could be overheard saying, “They are totally kicking (butt).”

Second-half highlights included “Shape of My Heart,” a perfect melding of orchestra and rocker; the curiously quirky “The Last Ship”; and “What Could Have Been,” which included a brilliant violin solo by concertmaster Justine Campagna.

The evocative “Russians,” with its renewed relevance, was a song Sting admitted he wasn’t sure he should sing. The audience was thankful he did.

Sting waited to bust out the best songs until close to the end with “King of Pain” and “Every Breath You Take” bringing the audience to its feet, happily clapping along. By now, Sting and orchestra were meeting on the same power level with neither overwhelming the other.

He finished with “Desert Rose,” a song that he embellished with Elvis Presley-style gyrations that brought hoots and hollers from the audience, and “Fragile,” which Sting dedicated to the women of Iran and on which Sting showed off exquisite acoustic guitar playing. And just for fun, he pulled a woman from the audience who came up on stage and did an entertaining Middle Eastern dance. Afterward, the woman, Angela Leavens of Montclair, N.J., insisted to this reviewer the whole thing was spontaneous, but it looked anything but.

In a post-show conversation, Doh said it was his first time working with an artist of Sting’s caliber. He didn’t know what to expect but came away impressed, particularly with “his humility and his willingness and readiness to work and rehearse. We were repeating (some) songs three and four times in rehearsal just to make sure every detail was there.”

And the hard work certainly paid off Tuesday night.

(c) Pittsburgh Tribune by Paul Guggenheimer