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Pittsburgh Symphony Celebrates 125 Years With A Video Special

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra gave its first performance on Feb. 27, 1896. And while the instrumentation and the music played that day wouldn’t surprise a time-traveling modern concert-goer, a few things would be very different from today’s experience.

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra 125th Anniversary Celebration public premiere: 8 p.m. Thu., March 11

For one, the show was at Carnegie Music Hall, in Oakland. That's logical enough, given that the PSO was founded by Andrew Carnegie, right around the time he founded the Carnegie Museums of art and natural history and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. However, there were only half as many musicians as the 99 in today’s PSO. Finally, “It was all men!” said PSO CEO and president Melia Tourangeau, with a laugh.

As the group marks its 125th birthday with the March 11 public premiere of an anniversary video, about one-third of its musicians are women. But much else has changed, too. The group that funding woes forced to disband for 16 years starting in 1910 regrouped very well indeed. It made a new home in Oakland’s Syria Mosque. In 1936, the PSO began performing for national radio audiences, and in 1941 released its first recording. In the 1960s, it began touring overseas. And over the decades, it gained critical acclaim under music directors including Otto Klemperer, William Steinberg, Andre Previn, Lorin Maazel, and Manfred Honeck.

The group’s also been at the center, literally, of Downtown Pittsburgh’s cultural revitalization. In 1971, a years-long effort by civic leaders resulted in the renovation of the grand but shuttered Penn Theater movie palace into Heinz Hall (named for philanthropist Henry J. Heinz II, who spearheaded the project). The PSO, which owns the building, moved in that year.

first_pso_program.jpeg
Credit Courtesy of Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
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Courtesy of Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
The program for the PSO's inagural performance, on Feb. 27, 1896

“The fact that the community, a, saved the hall and b, made it our home, and invested to make it really one of the best acoustic spaces in the country, is really pretty remarkable,” Tourangeau said. She said the PSO will celebrate the venue’s 50th anniversary next year.

Like most performing-arts venues, Heinz Hall has been closed to the public during the year since the coronavirus pandemic began. PSO musicians gave some outdoor concerts last year, and the group continues to offer music free online through its Front Row project.

The 125th-anniversary video was shot last fall, with no more than 25 people in the room at a time, Tourangeau said. It features solos, duets, and ensemble work by about 50 musicians playing works by Bach, Chevalier De Saint-Georges, Dukas, Fromm, Raum, Piazolla and more. Speakers include Tourangeau, Honeck, and principal pops conductor Byron Stripling.

The program airs 8 p.m. Thu., March 11, on WQED TV. It is also accessible through the PSO’s web site and for Comcast’s Xfinity customers for the next six months.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: bodriscoll@wesa.fm
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