Role of governments key to a PSO Iran trip

U.S. played integral part when orchestra went there in 1964



When the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra went on an almost three-month concert tour to Europe and the Middle East in 1964, it did so with significant support from the U.S. government.

The State Department sponsored and funded the trip, and music director William Steinberg was showered with attention from government officials -- both American and foreign.

He received letters from President Lyndon B. Johnson and assistant secretary of state Lucius D. Battle. Julius C. Holmes, the American ambassador to Iran -- a position that has not existed since diplomatic ties were severed following Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution -- invited the conductor to the embassy residence for supper after the orchestra's Aug. 26 concert.

During the PSO's stop in Iran, Prime Minister Hassan Ali Mansour attended the orchestra's opening concert and presented Steinberg with "a handsome Persian rug," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette music critic Donald Steinfirst observed from Tehran.

Now, as the PSO partners with the American Middle East Institute to explore the possibility of returning to Iran this September, 50 years after that monumental tour, government support would likely play a critical role.

The PSO will have to receive an invitation from the Iranian government.

Moreover, the State Department would have to iron out several details, such as visa considerations and sanctions provisions, said Gregg Sullivan, senior adviser for Iran.

The department does encourage "people-to-people ties" in education, culture and sports, he said. The Iranian and American wrestling teams participated in an exchange in 2013. In the cultural field, the State Department-funded American Music Abroad program sends a diverse collection of ensembles on global tours, though none is on the scale of a symphony orchestra.

For the PSO's potential tour, the American Middle East Institute, which will be wholly responsible for fundraising, may turn to the State Department for financial support, in a parallel with the 1964 trip.

"We're actually looking at the State Department to help us with some of our expenses," said Simin Yazdgerdi Curtis, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh-based organization. "I think the State Department will definitely come through for us or connect us to entities that will help us, because they definitely want to see this happen."

Other possible sources of funding include foundations and individual giving. One of the stipulations of the tour is that the PSO not use any of its own funds.

The PSO's 1964 tour was one instance of the government's efforts to spread American culture during the Cold War, said Gene R. Garthwaite, professor of history emeritus at Dartmouth College.

"This was an example of the government emphasizing America's soft power," he said. "This was a way of reaching out more broadly."

As Steinfirst, the music critic, reported from the PSO's first concert, in Athens, "Quite rightly this long European tour of the orchestra is intended to introduce American music in unfamiliar places. Mr. Steinberg is including about 15 American works in the repertory and at least one will be played at every concert."

Of the State Department's interest in the PSO's potential trip later this year, Mr. Garthwaite said, "I suspect it's for the same reasons, really, but it's no longer the Cold War."

Mr. Garthwaite, who researched and lived in Iran during the 1960s, believed a PSO trip would be a positive development in relations between the two countries. He believes that Iranians would welcome the opportunity to attend classical music performances, particularly those interested in reconnecting with the West.

"A live orchestra concert would really be terribly, terribly important, even for people who don't listen to classical music," he said.

"Going to this concert would be a sign certainly of your Western affiliation and a rejection of the government's restrictions," he added.

In the 1960s, Iranian society was characterized by an "unquestioned acceptance of Westernization," Mr. Garthwaite said. The Iran-America Society, for instance, hosted tens of thousands of Iranians for English language instruction and classes on topics such as American cooking and art.

Iran's active arts and music scene in the 1960s frequently drew performers from abroad, via foreign embassies and cultural arms, or the Iranian government, said Shaul Bakhash, professor of history at George Mason University.

Mr. Bakhash, who was a journalist in Iran from 1960 until the eve of the Islamic Revolution, does not recall the PSO's concerts in 1964.

"There were many such occasions of symphony orchestras coming from elsewhere, so it didn't stick in my memory," said Mr. Bakhash.

During that period, only a small minority of intellectuals opposed America's strong cultural influence. That started to change in the 1970s, roughly following the celebration of the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian monarchy in 1971, Mr. Garthwaite said.

Then, after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Iranian government banned "virtually all music," Mr. Bakhash said.

"If in fact [the PSO tour] takes place, it would be a rather dramatic moment in Iran-U.S. relations since the Revolution," he said.

"Tickets are going to be hard to get," Mr. Gartwhaite said.


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

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