For decades, the spotlight at the Syria Mosque or at Heinz Hall has been on the conductor, the music director, the maestro. But there are 99 good reasons why, now more than ever, it should be on the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra musicians.John Heller, Post-Gazette
The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra was minus its conductor, outgoing artistic director Mariss Jansons, for all but eight weeks during the past season.
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Previous No. 1's
2003: Janet Sarbaugh, Heinz Endowments
2002: Bill Strickland, Manchester Craftsmen's Guild
2001: Fred Rogers, television; children's advocate
2000: Carol Brown, Pittsburgh Cultural Trust
1999: August Wilson, playwright
1998: Martin McGuinn, Mellon Bank
1997: Teresa Heinz, Heinz Endowments
The obvious reason is that the musicians, not the management or the conductors, actually play the music that has continued to impress audiences and critics around the world, not to mention the thousands of people who hear them each year. They are the PSO, one of the country's top performing orchestras.
For the musicians, the past 12 months have been a banner year. From the Proms to the Pope, they have served as cultural exporters, connecting the name of Pittsburgh to excellence overseas.
Facing rough financial times, they negotiated a contract that allowed the PSO to operate at a viable pace and enhanced their role in marketing and other functions within it. Existing in the relative vacuum of a lame-duck conductor, since former music director Mariss Jansons visited for only eight weeks, the musicians worked diligently to keep the standards high. They've had off nights, to be sure, but more often than not they have scaled artistic heights.
"The Pittsburgh Symphony musicians are a model in the orchestral field not only for their artistic quality, which is exceptional, but also for their commitment to the institution," says newly hired CEO Larry Tamburri.
Which helps explain why the orchestra is No. 1 on the Post-Gazette's annual list of the city's Top 50 cultural forces. If the world were to put a face on the cultural excellence of Pittsburgh, it would have to be a composite of 99 of them.
Who are these people?
The Pittsburgh Symphony has had renowned music directors: Victor Herbert, Fritz Reiner, William Steinberg, Andre Previn, Lorin Maazel and, most recently, Mariss Jansons fill its pantheon.
But other American orchestras with famed conductors managed to keep public perception on the group, the musicians who live in the community. Some of them have nicknames highlighting the musicians -- the Fabulous Philadelphians or the Cleveland Sound. Some have indelible associations -- the sheer power of the Chicago brass, the aristocratic refinement of the Boston strings and the "America's orchestra" association of the New York Philharmonic.
Myriad reasons account for why the same hasn't developed for the PSO players -- reasons ultimately more social than artistic in nature. But the fact remains that the musicians of the PSO have been underrated in comparison to their leaders and even to the organization as a whole.
The past 12 months have been a historic one for the musicians and the organization. Longtime managing director Gideon Toeplitz left the group and Jansons had previously announced that he would leave within the year. The specter of a contract negotiation hung over the musicians, one that heavily involved several of their membership.
Yet through all of this, the players put on outstanding concerts in a European tour last summer that had one British newspaper calling them "the greatest American orchestra" (Daily Telegraph). The Financial Times, taking measure of the BBC Proms appearances in London, proclaimed, "If the great orchestras of Berlin and Vienna were listening in, they must have wondered whether their own visits to the Proms might not be an anticlimax."
When the contract negotiations in September resulted in cuts in pay and vacation for the musicians, they refused to give in to despondency. Instead, they involved themselves as never before in the management of the organization, from continuing to speak from the stage about the importance of donations to working on various committees to assist marketing, programming and director searches.
The musicians built on this positive energy for concerts at Heinz Hall, several of which included PSO principals as soloists. And when concerts scheduled at the Poconos' Mountain Laurel Center for the Performing Arts fell through, they agreed to perform instead in several chamber concerts in local churches this summer.
A season to shine
The highlight of the year clearly came in the middle of this past season, when the PSO promoted civic pride with its appearance at the Vatican. The musicians adjusted their schedules to accommodate the trip, then played through jet lag and a subpar conducting effort to impress Pope John Paul II himself in January. It marked the first performance of an American orchestra for the pope in the Vatican, and it was a success for the visibility of the group and the players. The season also produced tours to Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center that resulted in critical raves. The New York Times, for one, called the players a "streamlined, virtuoso ensemble."
Many of the players feel that during the Jansons years, the group jelled more than ever, making it capable of good performances even under inadequate direction. Despite his musical brilliance, Jansons wasn't always the clearest conductor, and several guest directors have been less so. But the orchestra overcame those technical difficulties. It's fair to say the PSO musicians are more agile than ever, able to carry out a versatile range of styles conductors might want, but also ready to take over if things seem shaky.
That comes just in time. It will take the next two years, at least, until the PSO has an active music director. Until the orchestra gets artistic direction and vision from that person -- and even after he or she arrives -- the more responsibility the members take, the better.
When the PSO musicians perform chamber music at concertmaster Andres Cardenes' Nuance concerts at the JCC Katz Auditorium in Squirrel Hill, they bring a new dimension -- a new genre really -- to patrons. When they play the Pops, children's or "edu-tainment" concerts, they target new audiences that help the entire organization's bottom line and future. When they give community concerts around the region in parks, high schools and churches, they sow the seeds of support.
But it is not just what the musicians do with the PSO that grants them our No. 1 status for 2004. Each member makes a local impact. The mere introduction of the talent and energy of these 99 players into our community is staggering in its scope.
We can't name every player here, but wanted to highlight as many individuals as possible. Therefore, the musicians we do list in the sampling that follows are mentioned once, even if they are involved in several activities. The complete list of musicians is listed online with this story:
Some musicians conduct local musical organizations, as violinist Roy Sonne did with the volunteer Edgewood Symphony Orchestra or cellist Charlotta Klein Ross does with the Three Rivers Symphonette. Bassist Jeffrey Turner is on the board of the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble.
Some support local composers, as Cardenes has with Leonardo Balada and violist Randolph Kelly and timpanist Timothy Adams have with David Stock.
Some take part in independent chamber groups, such as Pittsburgh Symphony Brass (trumpeters George Vosburgh and Neal Berntsen, horn player William Caballero, trombonists Peter Sullivan and Murray Crewe), the White Tie Group (English horn player Harold Smoliar, percussionist Andy Reamer and bassist Don Evans), the Pittsburgh Piano Trio (cellist Mikhail Istomin and violinist Jennifer Orchard). There's also violist Peter Guroff's Ionian Chamber Musicians and bass clarinetist Richard Page's Pittsburgh Chamber Music Project. The inaugural Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival would hardly have been as successful this spring without the many PSO musicians who participated.
Some teach at local universities, such as percussionist Andy Reamer, bassoonists Phillip Pandolfi and David Sogg, cellist David Premo, clarinetists Michael Rusinek and Ron Samuels, flutists Damian Bursill-Hall and Jennifer Conner, oboist Cynthia Koledo DeAlmeida, horn player Zachary Smith, and trumpeters Charles Lirette and Roger Sherman. Truth be told, a solid majority of the orchestra teach in local institutions or give private lessons, such as violists Marylene Gingras-Roy and Stephanie Tretick.
Some solo with regional orchestras, such as cellist Anne Martindale Williams, pianist Patricia Prattis Jennings and violinist Alison Peters Fujito.
Some, if not most, enhance the music of their religious institutions, such as a group led by Berntsen at Temple Emanuel in Mt. Lebanon or horn player Martin Smith with Kingdom First Ministries in Forest Hills.
Some carry the name of the Pittsburgh Symphony to prestigious festivals, such as bassoonist Nancy Goeres, oboist Jim Gorton, harpist Gretchen Van Hoesen and violinist Christopher Wu (Aspen); and horn player Robert Lauver, violinist Jennifer Ross, bassist John Moore and violinist Lorien Benet Hart (Grand Teton).
Some help local schools, such as violist Paul Silver, clarinetist Thomas Thompson, violinist David Gillis and Mark Huggins.
The list goes on, but perhaps most impressive has been violist Penny Anderson playing for cancer patients, using her musical talents in creative ways to help those in pain.
The importance of the PSO ensemble goes beyond its status as the region's largest arts organization and its excellent performing. It reaches beyond the stage and into the community.
Talk about cultural influence.
Musicians of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Andres Cardenes, concertmaster
Mark Huggins, associate concertmaster
Huei-Sheng Kao, assistant concertmaster
Hong-Guang Jia, assistant concertmaster
Holly D. Katz
Alison Peters Fujito
Jennifer Ross, principal
Louis Lev, associate principal
Jennifer Orchard, assistant principal
Sarah Brough Blomquist
Lorien Benet Hart
Randolph Kelly, principal
Isaias Zelkowicz, associate principal
Joen Vasquez, assistant principal
Tatjana Mead Chamis
Penny Anderson Brill
Richard M. Holland
Anne Martindale Williams, principal
David Premo, associate principal
Adam Liu, assistant principal
Irvin Kauffman, assistant principal laureate
Lauren Scott Mallory
Charlotta Klein Ross
Jeffrey Turner, principal
Donald H. Evans Jr., associate principal
Betsy Heston, assistant principal
Gretchen Van Hoesen, principal
Timothy Hutchins, principle
Damian Bursill-Hall, co-principal
Rhian Kenny, principal
Cynthia Koledo DeAlmeida, principal
James Gorton, co-principal
Harold Smoliar, principal
Michael Rusinek, principal
Thomas Thompson, co-principal
Richard Page, principal
Nancy Goeres, principal
David Sogg, co-principal
Philip A Pandolfi
James Rodgers, principal
William Caballero, principal
Martin Smith, co-principal
Zachary Smith, assistant principal
George Vosburgh, principal
Charles Lirette, co-principal
Roger C. Sherman
Peter Sullivan, principal
Rebecca Cherian, co-principal
Robert D. Hamrick
Murray Crewe, principal
Sumner Erickson, principal
Timothy K. Adams, Jr., principal
John Soroka, associate principal
John Soroka, principal
Andrew Reamer, associate principal
Patricia Prattis Jennings, principal
Irvin Kauffman, principal
Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at 412-263-1750 or email@example.com .