Meetings in Iran lift hopes for PSO visit


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Officials from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and the American Middle East Institute visited Iran last month to continue discussions related to a possible concert tour there this summer.

Simin Yazdgerdi Curtis, president and CEO of the nonprofit institute, and Robert Moir, the PSO's senior vice president of artistic planning and audience engagement, traveled there from Feb. 15-22 as guests of the Fajr International Music Festival in Tehran.

"It was just magical, and [the Iranian people] were so welcoming, so hospitable, so generous," Mrs. Curtis said.

The officials met with non-governmental organizers of the festival, attended concerts, visited historic sites and made a side trip to the Iranian city of Isfahan. They even took a video of Iranian youths holding up a Terrible Towel and saying, "Hello, Pittsburgh!"

They also returned with a proposal for a cultural exchange between an Iranian nongovernmental organization and the Pittsburgh-based American Middle East Institute. According to the tentative plan, the PSO would play in Tehran in late August or early September. Mrs. Curtis hopes that a yet-to-be-determined Iranian musical group, possibly the Tehran Symphony Orchestra, would then perform in Pittsburgh early next year.

"We hope to continue this kind of cultural exchange," said Mrs. Curtis, who is part Iranian.

The tour would mark the 50th anniversary of the last time the PSO played in Iran. That State Department-sponsored trip, in 1964, lasted almost three months and included visits to several countries throughout Europe and the Middle East.

The goal of the current effort is to facilitate the most significant cultural exchange in decades between two countries that have lacked diplomatic ties since Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979.

"I was very, very hopeful, and I am determined to make this happen. I think the time is right," Mrs. Curtis said.

Still, the project is pending several conditions, including the outcome of international negotiations on Iran's nuclear program and the ability to afford the estimated $4 million cost of the trip. Because the PSO does not use any money from its own operating budget on concert tours, the American Middle East Institute is wholly responsible for fundraising. Additionally, the PSO musicians' contract has several stipulations about such trips, such as the quality of concert halls and hotels.

As arrangements go forward, representatives from the Pittsburgh organizations plan to return to Iran for one or two more advance trips.

Mrs. Curtis said she is in the process of reaching out to foundations, corporations and individuals about supporting the project through donations and sponsorships. The touring group would likely include patrons, she said. The U.S. State Department may help fund the possible tour, as well.

Indeed, for American companies, Iran could soon present fresh business opportunities and an entirely new market. The election last year of President Hassan Rouhani, considered a moderate, has somewhat eased tensions between Iran and the U.S. The group of P5+1 countries, which includes the U.S., has temporarily provided relief from sanctions that have crippled Iran's economy, on the condition that it curb its nuclear program. The interim agreement expires in July. The tour could depend on whether it is extended or made permanent, Mrs. Curtis said.

A strong conservative presence remains in Iran, and it maintains laws that, for instance, prohibit alcohol consumption and require women to wear headscarves. In the past, it has banned Western music. Still, several observers are hopeful that relations between the U.S. and Iran can improve. In her experience, many Iranians are interested in interacting with Western countries, Mrs. Curtis said.

"We're getting to a point now where people-to-people diplomacy can really make a difference," she said.


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

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