Reviews mixed to PSO's tour to Iran

Four musicians would delay retirement for Iran trip

News that the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is pursuing a possible concert tour to Iran in September drew a variety of responses from local officials, musicians and the public.

The PSO has partnered with the nonprofit American Middle East Institute to look into the potential tour, which would mark a significant cultural exchange between two countries that have lacked diplomatic relations for over three decades and tenuous ties going back even longer. Most recently, the nations have differed on Iran's nuclear program and aspirations.

The musicians had not been told officially about the efforts, because they were delicate and in the early stages, but rumors had circulated around the orchestra.

"I personally hadn't heard anything," said contrabassoonist James Rodgers.

Many musicians wondered how the tour could be planned between now and September, Mr. Rodgers said, given that orchestra tours often take years to plan.

The reaction at Friday's rehearsal was "just 'wow,' not so much 'I don't want to do this' or 'I do want to do this,' just 'wow,' " Mr. Rodgers said.

He said there wasn't much talk about the tour, largely because the musicians were busy preparing for this weekend's concerts.

"It would be very exciting to do, to be a part of something new, something emerging, so to speak," said Mr. Rodgers.

Four musicians whose retirement would have gone into effect on Aug. 31 have spoken with the orchestra's personnel manager about staying on for the possible tour, said Robert Moir, senior vice president of artistic development and audience engagement.

The PSO has received mixed reaction from individuals outside of the organization.

"It's kind of a 50-50 situation: those that think it's a great idea, and those that have their reservations," said Louise Sciannameo, vice president of public affairs.

Outside of the organization, several people expressed enthusiasm at the possibility that the musicians would head to Iran.

"They're really the ambassador for this city," Elise Keely, a longtime PSO subscriber, said at Friday's concert in Heinz Hall.

That performance happened to feature Iranian-American composer Richard Danielpour's "Darkness in the Ancient Valley," a work co-commissioned by the PSO and written in the wake of protests following Iran's 2009 presidential election.

"I thought it was amazing news, absolutely amazing," said Kevin McMahon, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

Mr. McMahon and real estate developer Todd Palcic, who is married to an Iranian-American woman, had been in discussions about possibly bringing the Tehran Symphony Orchestra to Pittsburgh in 2010, following that orchestra's concert tour of Europe.

"A lot of people were enthusiastic about it," said Mr. Palcic.

The project received a letter of support from WQED, although the PSO did not support the idea, he said. It was abandoned due to political circumstances at the time.

"It really didn't go anywhere," Mr. McMahon said.

Mr. Palcic, who visited Iran a few years ago, believes the Iranian people would be thrilled to welcome the PSO despite the tense relations between the governments.

The Pittsburgh Symphony performed in Iran in 1964 on a trip sponsored by the U.S. State Department. It was one of the last American orchestras to play in Iran.

Iran's young population experiences high unemployment and is thirsty for a shift in relations with the U.S., he said. More than 40 percent of the population is under the age of 25, with a 23 percent unemployment rate for people aged 15 to 24, according to the CIA World Factbook.

"People are desperate for change, and that's why I think they allowed the election this time to go to a more liberal figure," he said, referring to President Mahmoud Rouhani, who was elected last summer.

"Art rises above the politics," he said.

Others, however, were less sure of the positive impact of the possible tour. Authoritarian regimes often create cultural exchanges to serve their own purposes, said Douglas Feith, Hudson Institute senior fellow and former undersecretary of defense for policy under George W. Bush.

The New York Philharmonic Orchestra's tour to North Korea in 2008 is one example, he said. The North Korean government used the visit to earn prestige from hosting a Western orchestra, he said.

The Iranian government, which would have to extend an invitation to the PSO for the tour to occur, persecutes minorities and political opponents, including artists, he said.

Others remained in a holding pattern.

"I'll reserve judgment, I guess, or comment, and see what the State Department says on this," Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said.

"When the symphony goes overseas ... it accrues to the benefit of our reputation, of what Pittsburgh represents, a rich tradition of arts, culture, music, and it often opens the door for trade and other economic development opportunities," he said.

Jay Pagni, spokesman for Gov. Tom Corbett, declined comment.


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.

Elizabeth Bloom: or 412-263-1750. Twitter: @BloomPG.

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