Friday, March 21, 2008

the pride of pittsburgh

victor herbert
Victor Herbert from Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra was founded by the Pittsburgh Arts Society when it hired conductor Frederic Archer in 1895. He brought along a number of musicians from the Boston Symphony Orchestra (and they accused the baseball team of being pirates!)

He led the PSO in its initial concert the following year. The Orchestra played in its' first home, Oakland's Carnegie Music Hall on Forbes Avenue, into the mid 1920s.

Archer left in 1898 and was replaced by Victor Herbert. Herbert was a showman, and he led the PSO with flair and flamboyance if not exactly classical righteousness.

In its second season, the Orchestra received an invitation to perform two concerts at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Andrew Carnegie agreed to finance the trip. The critics debated Herbert's talents, but ticket sales soared. Audiences flocked to hear him conduct a repertoire that included many of his own works. The PSO was off and running.

Emil Paur took over in 1904, and he brought a classical playlist with him. He had served as conductor of the Boston Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. Paur nixed the show tunes and replaced them with a heavy dose of Brahms, whose music was thought to be too advanced for most audiences of the era. It's national rep as a long hair orchestra took off.

Paur remained at the head of the Orchestra until it disbanded in 1910, a victim of the global panic of 1907. The PSO benefactors largesse dried up. Internal problems wracked the Orchestra, too - he had replaced many of the area musicians with European players, and the locals refused to sign a contract with the PSO. At least that strike didn't require any Pinkertons to resolve.

It took 16 years, but the band finally reformed. They immediately got in trouble, being taken to court for it's Sunday Concert Series which violated Pennsylvania's Blue Laws.

Many of it's players were under contract to other groups, and Sunday was their only day off. In fact, they threw together the money to run the Orchestra as a labor of love. Butting heads with the state ended up as good way to get some ink and hit the ground running after the down time.

In 1936, the Symphony's concerts were broadcast nationally. Then the PSO hired renowned conductor Otto Klemperer in 1937 to reorganize and expand the Orchestra. A natural teacher, he is credited with turning the PSO into a powerhouse.

He brought Fritz Reiner aboard as Music Director. The Orchestra's reputation grew by leaps and bounds, netting the ensemble a recording contract and an invitation to perform abroad. Several composers had the PSO perform world premieres under Reiner's direction.

He had a hair trigger temper and demanded perfection from his players. His baton work featured small, tight movements which were tough to follow and forced the musicians to keep on their eyes on the maestro if they wanted to stay in sync.

At one rehearsal a bass player put a telescope on the boss. When he explained to Reiner that he was "trying to find the beat," the conductor fired him on the spot. German conductors were never noted for their sense of humor.

Women joined the Orchestra for the first time during World War II. Eighteen came aboard in 1942 and twenty-four more in 1944.

In its 23 years under the direction of William Steinberg (1952-1976), the PSO became a top flight ensemble and a local hit. By 1961, audiences had increased 250 percent.

What's more, in the five preceding years, the PSO was the only American orchestra to sell out all its concerts through season ticket sales. And you thought the Steelers and Pens were the only Pittsburgh shows with a waiting list!

In 1964, the PSO embarked on an 11-week, 24,000 mile tour of Europe and the Near East, sponsored by the State Department. The trip helped shed Pittsburgh's Smoky City image and elevated the concept of American culture abroad.

It switched halls in 1971. Some of the Orchestra's best work, both live and recorded, was done in the Syria Mosque in Oakland where the PSO performed from 1926 until 1971. The building was demolished in 1992 to the dismay of many, but hey, Oakland needed another parking lot. Pitt and UPMC even bid against one another for the honor.

Its' replacement, Heinz Hall, was plenty spiffy with room to grow and great acoustics, and would eventually become the anchor of Pittsburgh's Downtown Cultural District.

Violinist Paul Ross and pianist Patricia Prattis Jennings, both Westinghouse High grads, were hired in the 1965-66 season and were the first Afro-Americans in the Pittsburgh Symphony. It's had two to four black players every season since. Not a lot of diversity, but a good showing for the classical world.

More confident of itself, the PSO returned to its' roots and hired Andre Previn as batonmeister. Jazz and pop once again flowed from the pits, along with the usual opuses. In 1977, it made its' national debut on PBS with "Previn and the Pittsburgh." Alcoa sponsored the award-winning series, which ran for three years.

When Previn left in 1984, Lorin Maazel became the man. The Orchestra gained further stature when he led it on tours of Europe, Asia, and the Americas, added first-rank players, and programmed seasons that both sold well and caught the critic's eye. The PSO became one of the world's renowned orchestras.

He was a local boy of sorts, having trained in Pittsburgh and played for the PSO. The musicians loved him, and so did the audiences. The Orchestra recorded often under him and won a Grammy for its 1992 album with Yo-Yo Ma. He dedicated entire seasons to individual composers. Maazel took the PSO one step beyond into the elite.

In 1995, the PSO lured Marvin Hamlisch as the Orchestra's first Principal Pops Conductor in a coup of sorts. Victor Herbert would be so proud.

After a dozen years, Maazel hung up the baton and Mariss Janson took the lead as Musical Director. In 2004, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Sir Gilbert Levine, became the first American orchestra to play for the Pope.

It took a team effort to replace Janson when he abruptly departed in 2004. Sir Andrew Davis (Artistic Advisor); Yan Pascal Tortelier (Principal Guest Conductor); and Marek Janowski (Endowed Guest Conductor), were hired, and each has his own area of expertise to contribute to the cause. This setup lasted through 2007.

The PSO returned to a more traditional leadership heirarchy. Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck became the PSO's ninth music director in 2007. The Orchestra announced that American conductor Leonard Slatkin would become it's principal guest conductor beginning in the 2008-2009 season. That's today's lineup (I think.) And yes, you do need a scorecard. At least I do.

The orchestra has had some cash flow problems, which hopefully have been rectified, and suffer from an occasional uprising from the players in the pits, not unusual in the music business. But it's still a world class organization, playing to appreciative houses, touring the world and recording. They still draw well earned accolades in the world of classical music.

The PSO has served majestically in its' century plus of music making. They've recently returned from a 13 city European tour celebrating the city's 250th anniversary and just might be our greatest international promotional tool. Pittsburgh would be hard pressed to come up with a better, more enduring and endearing musical face to show the world.

(The history of the PSO was mostly taken from the Pittsburgh Symphony. If you want a more in depth look at its' past, this is the place.)

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