PSO tour touts city's assets
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Even in classical music terms, 250 years is a long time ago. When Pittsburgh was founded in 1758, Mozart was only 2 years old (and no, he hadn't composed anything yet) and Beethoven was not even born. Bach had died only eight years prior and Handel was still alive. Back when the Europeans here were worried more about survival than sonatas, few would have guessed that one day Pittsburgh would be exporting European culture to Europe.
But that is just the case when the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra embarks on a tour to Europe over the next three weeks. The Pittsburgh 250 Ambassador Tour is one of the first celebrations of the city's birthday this year and a celebration of its remarkable growth over the years. It will kick off the city's own yearlong celebration.
"The Pittsburgh Symphony is excited to return to our touring roots, visiting, performing and representing our city in important cultural capitals throughout Europe," said PSO president Larry Tamburri.
The tour will take the orchestra to Barcelona, Amsterdam, Cologne, Vienna, Budapest, Zagreb and more. Some are new stops for the PSO, but all are cities with abundant classical music fans who are well aware of the orchestra's ranking as one of America's best.
"When we say we are from Pittsburgh they almost say universally, 'Ah, the Pittsburgh Symphony,' " said PSO board chairman Richard P. Simmons. "There is such recognition."
In fact, touring internationally alone is a major factor in showing the PSO's rank. "Touring is a very strong benchmark," said Drew McManus, expert in the orchestra industry. "It always has been and it still is. It shows an organization's commitment." Indeed, the PSO toured Europe, including some of the cities on the upcoming trip, in summer 2006.
The Pittsburgh 250 Ambassador Tour will be split into two parts. The first will take place entirely in Spain and will be led by native conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos. Conductor Marek Janowski takes over for the second leg, with Leonidas Kavakos (violin) Julia Fischer (violin) and Nikolai Lugansky (piano) taking turns soloing with the group. The highlights will include debuts in Pamplona and Castellon, Spain, performances in Amsterdam's prestigious Concertgebouw and Vienna's opulent Konzerthaus and concerts in new halls in Budapest and Zagreb, a Pittsburgh sister city. The repertoire will be canonical: largely Brahms and Beethoven symphonies and concertos, with some Wagner opera excerpts.
But even with the tour's focus on the past and the impressions it will make in the present to audiences, Pittsburgh officials hope this European tour will inspire the future, too.
"This is a special time in Pittsburgh and we want to portray our history and future on a global scale," said Michael Langley, CEO of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development. "The 250th becomes another way of showing what Pittsburgh has to offer. We value the Pittsburgh Symphony as one of Pittsburgh's strongest assets."
"The PSO plays a very special role in acting as an ambassador for our city through its tours and performances, particularly those abroad," said Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. "When international music lovers come to hear our world-class PSO, they get an immediate sense of Pittsburgh as a world-class city."
Along with members of the Allegheny Conference, both Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato will travel to Europe for business development trips that will intersect with the PSO in various cities. Onorato will meet with business leaders and attend pre-concert receptions in Barcelona, Madrid and Amsterdam; Ravenstahl connects with the tour in Amsterdam. Among other orders of business there, Ravenstahl is promoting the city's green agenda, visiting the Amsterdam Science and Technology Park and unveiling the upcoming Tour of Pennsylvania pro bicycle tour. Onorato is meeting with KLM and Northwest in Amsterdam, and he plans to bring the CEO of KLM to the PSO's concert there.
The conference and its marketing affiliate, the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, will have a longer presence on the tour. The influential corporate-backed public policy and business advocacy organization will accompany the PSO, looking to interest more foreign companies in the greater Pittsburgh region. Langley expects to contact more than 100 companies.
"This is just another sign that local communities and governments have realized the importance of a performing arts organization to attract business, especially outside business," said McManus. "It is not unheard of, but [you] don't find most orchestral tours having a business promotion group like this. Most communities have several [such groups] but you don't find them looking at orchestras saying this is going to be a great thing, let's go out and do that."
It's a recent development here, but the Allegheny Conference is sold on the PSO.
"Cultural tourism and exchange is often a small spark that creates an opportunity, [for] trade and then investment, and that is when you have people moving to a location," Langley said.
One such spark in the 2006 tour ignited a major change in direction for one German company, Sycor. Headquartered in Goettingen, Germany, the information technology and business process consulting company was weighing where to locate a North American headquarters. Pittsburgh, which had a small Sycor office, was a candidate but it was running behind some other cities.
"By the time we got the e-mail from Allegheny Conference that the tour was going on, we were already leaning toward Montreal," said Jim Marczak, CEO of Sycor Americas. Then a Sycor representative attended some meetings as well as a PSO concert in Dortmund and was blown away. "[He] instantly called me to say how wonderful it was," says Marczak. "He is a classical music lover and it struck a nice chord with him."
Soon enough, Marczek opted to negotiate with the Pennsylvania governor's action team and Allegheny County for an incentive plan of $440,000. "It was pretty close to the Canadian offer," he said. "Because of the intangibles, we chose Pittsburgh."
Those intangibles included the region's amenities -- a comparatively low cost of living, short commutes, top universities and schools, excellent medical care, high-quality arts and sports teams and Pittsburgh's relative proximity to other cities. But "the music factor was a puzzle piece that brought the puzzle together."
Sycor Americas is now located in Penn Center West, Robinson, with an office of 40 employees, and many attend concerts at Heinz Hall. "People expect a head office to have things they can be proud of in the arts and the like," said Marczek.
"A lot of things become tie-breakers in these situations," Langley said. "We like to compete on cultural and life issues such as low cost of living and strategic location." And with the conference's low budget for recruitment and promotion tours -- it spent $34,500 for the meetings, receptions and travel expenses with the PSO in 2006 -- joining with the orchestra is an efficient way to spread its word.
It helps, of course, that the region already has strong ties to overseas businesses, particularly in Europe. More than 324 foreign-based companies have operations in the region, employing some 43,000. But the recruitment game never ends, which is why local leaders like to piggyback on such high-profile groups as the PSO.
"The orchestra is the vehicle to get these people in one room," Simmons said.
The Pittsburgh Symphony doesn't believe it's being used -- far from it. Tamburri said the PSO benefits from the attention and realizes that a healthier corporate sector makes for a healthier arts scene.
The PSO "believes we are an important citizen in the community and we think this is important to do," said Tamburri, who cited the three-month European tour the orchestra took in 1964 at the request of the U.S. State Department. "But we couldn't tour without corporate sponsors."
Bank of New York Mellon, chemicals giant Lanxess and PPG Industries, health technology firm Acusis and the law firm Meyer, Unkovic & Scott are presenting sponsors of the upcoming tour. The tour also draws crucial financial support of about $200,000 from the recently announced $5.5 million pledge from the Henry L. Hillman Foundation for a PSO Endowment for International Performances.
The more that the PSO can do to make concerts successful, the better. "If we go to a facility to perform and play a good concert and provide other activities, the presenters may have better reason to bring us back," said Tamburri. "We have a pretty good track record doing that."
The PSO also has a pretty good track record performing on tour, and thrives on impressing European concert-goers and critics with heady performances of the classics of classical music, which is to say the European canon. "One of the great traditions of the Pittsburgh Symphony is that repertory," said Tamburri.
But there is another reason for bringing Brahms to Europe this year: The PSO has recordings out on the market of the complete Brahms symphonies conducted by Janowski. The first volume already has been released, with the second of the live recordings due this week in Europe by the label Pentatone, which is based in Amsterdam.
The PSO wants this tour to be yet another sign that it is a top-tier orchestra. "An orchestra that only plays in its own home city never has the opportunity to compare to other orchestras in those countries," said Simmons. "The critics in these cities make that comparison and that tells that orchestra how we stand on that ladder from best to not the best."
In doing so, it just might push Pittsburgh higher in the minds of others, too.
First Published January 20, 2008 12:00 am