With the exception of the tone-deaf, I suppose, the prospect of some lone bagpiper hacking his or her way through "Amazing Grace" or "Scotland the Brave" is enough to set one's teeth on edge. Worse yet: a pack of them parading through the streets at full volume. And actually, there's a very good reason for feeling that way: A highly technical and physically demanding instrument, bagpipes have a fairly narrow middle ground, in that a player is either usually rather wretched or, after years or decades of study, quite good.
But if you happen to hear bagpipes in Pittsburgh, odds are, they're likely the latter. The city has a rich history of Scottish music, and since the late 1970s has been home base to The Balmoral School of Piping, the country's premier summer bagpipe instructional program, headed by longtime Pittsburgher George Balderose. And back in the early 1990s, Carnegie Mellon was the first school to offer a B.A. in bagpipe performance; the program's current director, Alasdair Gilles, is one of the top players in the world.
So it makes sense, in a way, that Pittsburgh is the setting for this weekend's inaugural Balmoral Classic, a weekend-long event featuring some of the finest bagpipers from the U.S. and abroad. Whereas "highland games" tend to emphasize pageantry and history, this event promises a more intense musical focus. Starting with an opening reception on Fri., Nov. 9, the event also features a day-long competition (open to the public) in which the top under-18 players in the country compete solo, and a final parade on Sunday morning.
The main event, though, is a concert at the Carnegie Music Hall featuring Dublin's 48-member St. Laurence O'Toole Pipe Band, along with dancers and other traditional Irish music. I can't quite emphasize this enough, but there are bagpipe bands, and there are bagpipe bands. The O'Toole Pipe Band is among the cream of the crop, having won many of the major competitions in the world since its founding in 1910, including the 2007 All-Ireland Championship. In all, the weekend presents a rare chance to see what this tricky yet incredibly powerful instrument is really all about.
The Balmoral Classic. Competition: U.S. Invitational Junior Solo Piping Championship. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat., Nov. 10. Mellon Institute Auditorium, 4400 Fifth Ave., Oakland. Free. Concert: The St. Laurence O'Toole Pipe Band 7:30 p.m. Sat., Nov. 10. Carnegie Music Hall, 4400 Forbes Ave, Oakland. $25-55 ($35-65 at the door, group discounts available). www.proartstickets.org or 412 394-3353. Remembrance Day Bagpipe Band Parade: 10 a.m. Sun., Nov. 11. End at First Presbyterian Church, Downtown. Free. Receptions and additional information: visit www.balmoralclassic.org