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Review: PSO’s Pops Make Magic With Motown Sound

By Camille Agie

You won’t leave here as you came,” said PNC Pops conductor Bryon Stripling before the start of the concert, “Let’s Groove Tonight: Motown & The Philly Sound,” performed by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. 

Despite being a lifelong Pittsburgher, it was my very first visit to Heinz Hall

I was awed by the beauty inside the building – sparkling chandeliers, regal drapes, and inviting lounge areas. 

The PSO Pops crowd stands for, from left, Brik Liam, Byron Stripling, Cherise Coaches and Chester Gregory at opening night of “Let’s Groove Tonight: Motown & The Philly Sound.” (Image: onstagepittsburgh.com)

While I was taking in the beauty before the performance on opening night, I realized, “I may be the only 22-year-old in Heinz Hall right now.” But I didn’t mind. I felt a deep connection to the music, thanks to my seasoned parents’ musical influence. The familiarity of the songs added to my excitement. 

Enough about me — the real magic was the music itself.

Led by Broadway’s Chester Gregory – five shows, including Motown the Musical – alongside powerhouse vocalists Cherise Coaches and Brik Liam, the evening started with Earth, Wind & Fire’s 1981 hit Let’s Groove Tonight.” 

The three vocalists’ varying vocal ranges harmonized beautifully and effortlessly. I have heard “Let’s Groove Tonight” countless times, but experiencing it live in a regal auditorium with a full orchestra,“Wow,” is all I could say to myself. I was blown away by the cohesiveness of the musicians on such familiar tunes. 

My Girlby The Temptations was a standout of the night. Gregory took the lead for this song, and his powerful voice filled the auditorium. It seemed like he could hold a note forever. You couldn’t help but tap your foot along to the beat, with drummer Eric Metzgar keeping the beat, front and center. For this concert, the PSO musicians also were fronted by Shubh Saran on guitar, Jeff Grubbs on bass and Max Leake, piano/synth.

Broadway’s Chester Gregory helps bring the Motown sound to Heinz Hall and PSO’s Pops. (Image: onstagepittsburgh.com)

Another standout number of the night was The Stylistics’ 1972 hit, People Make the World Go Round”; the combination of the orchestra with the amazing voices of Coaches, Liam and Gregory was enchanting. Liam took the lead in Lou Rawls’s iconic song, You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine,” his deep, rich voice echoing the qualities of Rawls’ in the original song. Coaches then rocked the house with her powerful rendition of Thelma Houston’s disco hit, “Don’t Leave Me This Way.”

Her performance was so captivating that many in the crowd began to sing along with her, creating a joyful and vibrant atmosphere. An already amazing event was made more enjoyable by the vocalist’s encouragement for everyone to dance if they were feeling the music, adding a delightful touch to an already incredible concert.

In the second half of the concert, PSO’s Pops reached into their classical roots for “A Fifth of Beethoven,” and the trio of vocalists added a little dramatic flair to the rivalry in “Me and Mrs. Jones.”

The crowd was sent swaying into the night to “Rock the Boat,” “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” and “Love Train,” the latter showing off a little Motown choreography, with more encouragement for the audience to get up and dance. 

Stripling’s promise that “you won’t leave here as you came” definitely held true for me, and surely many others.

TICKETS AND DETAILS

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s PNC Pops continues “Let’s Groove Tonight: Motown & The Philly Sound,” with concerts Saturday, June 22, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, June 23, at 2:30 p.m. Tickets: or call 412-392-4900.