Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra exploring possibility of returning to Iran

Orchestra's potential tour seen as the equivalent of pingpong diplomacy

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Officials from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and the American Middle East Institute are in discussions to arrange a potentially groundbreaking concert tour to Iran this September.

The symphony performed in Iran in 1964, one of the last American orchestras to do so. Relations between the two countries have been marked by several political standoffs since then, most recently over Iran's nuclear aspirations.

The negotiations with Iran about the concert tour, which have occurred with the knowledge of State Department officials, have only recently turned serious. Principals in the talks acknowledge that many hurdles, on both sides, remain. Relations between the two nations are sensitive, and any number of unexpected developments could endanger the PSO's potential trip, which could also include a visit to the nearby Persian Gulf nation of Oman.

Despite the challenges, the notion of a musical and diplomatic overture is being examined at the highest levels in Tehran and Washington.

"They still have a lot of details to work out, but we're going to stay in close touch with them as this goes forward," said Gregg Sullivan, senior adviser for Iran at the State Department.

"If we succeed in taking the symphony for this breakthrough concert [tour] in Tehran, it will be a sensation," said Simin Yazdgerdi Curtis, president and CEO of the American Middle East Institute.

Representatives of the PSO and AMEI are planning an advance visit to Iran next month during the country's Fajr International Music Festival.

"We have been invited to come over to begin preliminary discussions," said Robert Moir, the PSO's senior vice president of artistic development and audience engagement.

That February trip is pending visa approval, said Mrs. Curtis, who is part Iranian and used to live in Iran but hasn't been back since 1968.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the PSO's 1964 visit to Iran.That anniversary serves as a primary motivator for the tour, as does the possibility of cultural diplomacy.

The State Department sponsored that 1964 trip to Europe and the Middle East, with stops in Poland, West Germany, Lebanon and several other countries. The tour marked the PSO's first outside of North America and was led by then music director William Steinberg.

"That was, unquestionably, the most significant commitment any orchestra ever made to performing cultural diplomacy, just by virtue of the fact that they were on the road for 11 weeks, much of it behind the Iron Curtain," Mr. Moir said.

PSO music director Manfred Honeck, who would conduct the pending tour, strongly supports the idea, Mr. Moir said.

The trip would be a partnership with the PSO and the Pittsburgh-based AMEI, a nonprofit that seeks to build business, cultural and educational ties to the Middle East. One of the conditions of the tour is that the PSO would not draw from its own operating budget. AMEI would be responsible for fundraising, including reaching out to individuals and local foundations, Mrs. Curtis said. The current cost is estimated to be roughly $4 million, she said.

Mrs. Curtis, who is the honorary consul of Oman in Pittsburgh, plans to visit Oman before heading to Iran next month. She said she would like to bring the PSO there during the tour, too.

"If I can make it happen, I will make it happen," she said. "We're not at that level of detail yet."

The PSO and AMEI had discussed the possibility of touring Iran in 2009, but major protests following the Iranian presidential election at that time steered those plans off course, Mrs. Curtis said. Realizing the 50th anniversary was coming up, Mrs. Curtis and Mr. Moir revisited the idea last summer, she said. They were even able to secure a meeting with Mohammad Ali Najafi, director of Iran's Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization, that took place at the ONE UN New York hotel during the United Nations General Assembly in September, Mrs. Curtis said.

There are several obstacles that the organizations must overcome on the bureaucratic levels, including sanctions provisions and visa considerations, Mr. Sullivan, the State Department official, said. Those are on top of the PSO's own considerations, including securing an invitation from the Iranian government and security issues, Mr. Moir said.

If negotiations produce an agreement, the 2014 tour, would represent American cultural outreach to one of the nations that then President George W. Bush included in his "Axis of Evil." President Barack Obama's administration has initiated efforts to establish a dialogue with Iran, often to bitter criticism from conservatives and Jewish groups.

In the past half-century, American cultural icons have called on geopolitical foes, offering a human touch under tense diplomatic circumstances.

"A symphony orchestra can accomplish historic symbolic breakthroughs in the form of these kinds of missions of cultural diplomacy," Mr. Moir said.

The Philadelphia Orchestra traveled to China in 1973, the year after President Richard Nixon made his monumental visit there and two years after American table tennis players stepped on Chinese soil in what became known as pingpong diplomacy. The New York Philharmonic Orchestra traveled to North Korea in 2008.

In 1987, the PSO was the first American orchestra to visit China in that decade. The symphony then performed in the Soviet Union in 1989.

The PSO also attracted attention in 2004 by becoming the first American orchestra to play for Pope John Paul II at the Vatican.

The U.S. has not had formal diplomatic relations with Iran for over three decades. Instead, the American government pursues "a two-track approach to Iran," Mr. Sullivan said. There are sanctions on the one hand and "people-to-people ties" on the other, including educational, cultural and sports exchanges between the two nations. In 2013, for instance, the U.S. and Iranian wrestling teams engaged in reciprocal visits to the other country. A possible orchestra tour falls into the latter category.

"It would certainly be consistent with the people-to-people engagement and societal linkages we've been promoting between the U.S. and Iranian people," Mr. Sullivan said.

The PSO would be interested in playing music by Iranian and American composers along with core repertoire and performing alongside Iranian soloists, Mr. Moir said. The PSO's two concerts in Tehran in 1964 featured works by Berlioz, Brahms, Copland, Hindemith, Mahler, Piston, Ravel, Schubert and Weber. In addition to concerts, "other activities may be proposed and considered," he said.

The 1964 tour occurred in a different era of Iran-U.S. relations, when Iran was ruled by the shah. Prime Minister Hassan Ali Mansour and Cabinet ministers attended the PSO's first concert in Iran.

Still, as Pittsburgh Post-Gazette music critic Donald Steinfirst observed from Tehran, "The appearance here of the orchestra under the auspices of the State Department, U.S. Ambassador Julius Holmes and the Iran American Society was a great strike for the cultural image of America."

Tensions between the U.S. and Iran have been fraught since Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq was overthrown, with the help of the CIA, in 1953. They only spiked when 52 Americans were taken hostage after Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution. For several years now, the U.S., the European Union and other countries have been imposing tough economic sanctions on Iran in an attempt to get it to curtail its nuclear development program.

Still, those icy relations may be thawing. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was elected in June, and many analysts believe him to be moderate in comparison to his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

"We've seen a change in rhetoric coming out of Tehran," said Mr. Sullivan.

P5+1 countries, a group that includes the U.S., recently reached a temporary agreement by which Iran will receive financial relief in exchange for stalling or rolling back its nuclear program. The six-month agreement goes into effect Monday.

The Joint Plan of Action is a matter of considerable controversy, fed by concerns that it could financially equip Iran to increase its nuclear capabilities at a later time. The U.S. Senate is considering legislation that would increase sanctions on Iran. The bill has bipartisan support.

Iran was one of many stops on the three-month tour in 1964 that would take the PSO "21,000 miles through 14 countries and West Berlin," according to a Post-Gazette article written at the time. President Lyndon B. Johnson wrote a note wishing the orchestra "bon voyage" for the long trip.

"I am confident that you will be outstanding representatives of our nation's creative vitality and high standards of performance," Johnson wrote.


Correction (posted Jan. 23): This article no longer states that the PSO was the last American orchestra to perform in Iran. The Los Angeles Philharmonic performed there in October 1967 on the occasion of the coronation of the shah. In addition, the repertoire of the 1964 PSO concerts has been corrected.


Elizabeth Bloom: ebloom@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750. Twitter: @BloomPG.

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