Monday, October 3, 2016

Pennsylvania's orchestras, and Tip O'Neill

Friday was a rough day for orchestras in the nation's commonwealth. The Pittsburgh Symphony's musicians hit the streets on Friday morning; later that evening, only moments before the Philadelphia Orchestra was set to perform for a gala audience, the players walked out. The 550 gala attendees did stay for dinner, but only after some of them shamed some of the musicians for ruining their evening.

People will want to conflate the two, but their situations could not be more different.  The two things both orchestras share are a common state and reputation for being world class.  That's it. Beyond that, as Tip O'Neill liked to say, "All politics is local."  The same can be said for orchestras.

The Philadelphia Orchestra's challenges are not unknown to the orchestra world: in 2001, it moved into a new venue, the Kimmel Center, before it was even finished.  Ten years later, the orchestra filed for bankruptcy while, only a few blocks away, the Curtis Institute of Music was raising 65 million dollars for a new building.  (This news must have been deeply distressing to all constituent groups of the Philadelphia Orchestra, particularly its musicians, who once had enjoyed a base pay larger than that of most major orchestras.)  The Philadelphians' strike lasted less than two days, as both sides agreed to a contract, but the ill feelings may linger. 

Pittsburgh's situation could not be more different.  

Last night's Monday Night Football game at Heinz Field, in which the Pittsburgh Steelers clobbered the Kansas City Chiefs, brought back a wonderful memory for me.

Twenty years ago, I made my conducting debut with the Pittsburgh Symphony, in which I conducted the brass and percussion sections in our nation's anthem, right on the 50-yard line of Three Rivers Stadium.  It was a thrilling moment for me, and it made me understand how hard it must be for opposing team's players to hear their quarterback's play calls, because the crowd roar after the final note was positively deafening.  It actually hurt my ears -- that's how loud it was.  (It was also a bittersweet moment, as it was on that very same field that Franco Harris had caught his Immaculate Reception, thus destroying my beloved Oakland Raiders.)

Earlier that evening, on the bus ride from Heinz Hall to the stadium just across the river, one player opined that the Pittsburgh Symphony would never go on strike.  It made sense to me at the time, even as the orchestra's newest employee.   Pittsburgh, as I would come to learn, is all about its community. During my six years as Resident Conductor, the city's Cultural Trust transformed the downtown area, building a new Convention Center while bringing all of the arts organization under one umbrella. And when PNC park was built, many baseball fans had to walk by Heinz Hall to find out what concerts were on the horizon.  During the intermission of Sunday matinees, many musicians would be looking at a tiny television set near the stage door entrance, to keep tabs on the Pirates, Steelers or Penguins.  There is no more sports crazy town than Pittsburgh, and I loved it.  How many cities can say all three of their sports teams wear the same colors? Walking my children to school, every boy and girl was adorned in black and gold.

And this town LOVES its orchestra!  Evidence of that was when over 2,000 musicians from all over western Pennsylvania gathered in the Civic Arena to break the record for the World's Largest Orchestra. When the Pittsburgh Symphony went on a three week summer tour of Europe, every concert was reported in both of its daily newspapers, generating so much civic pride that when the orchestra returned home for opening night, the place was sold out -- for Arnold Schoenberg's Gurrelieder!  

I am hopeful that both sides will come to an agreement soon.  Of all the cities where I have worked as a conductor, Pittsburgh was a highlight for me and my family.  (Well, maybe my ex-wife didn't like it that much, but the kids and I had a blast.)  Every day I drove downtown, I had the biggest grin on my face, as I was about to spend another day, listening to one of the greatest orchestras in the world.  

Philadelphia has Carson Wentz, Jeffrey Lurie, Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Allison Vulgamore.
Pittsburgh has Ben Roethlisberger, the beloved Dan Rooney, Manfred Honeck and Melia Tourangeau.

C'mon guys. 
Let's come together.

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