First Person / Farewell to Pittsburgh
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My late wife Fannia and I moved to Pittsburgh and Northumberland Street 25 years ago, making this by far the longest stretch of time that I have lived in the same place. Ignoring some wrinkles, it's been a very fruitful quarter-century and, because I will be leaving shortly, herewith a brief farewell account.
The story divides into two very unequal segments. The first tells of my largely unsuccessful roles as a cog in a number of institutional machines. The second is the account of my doing my own thing, where I managed to thrive in Pittsburgh in ways never before.
Let's get those institutional involvements out of the way quickly. Symbolic of those experiences is the response to a rather mundane suggestion I made early on at a meeting of the board of the Chamber Music Society: "We tried that in the late '30s and it didn't work." No change, please -- a conservatism not suited to my temperament.
That was really at the bottom of my inability to accomplish much as provost at the University of Pittsburgh, the job that brought me here and from which I resigned two years later. The story is, of course, complicated and must include my own inadequacies, but I won't rehash it here. Before retiring from Pitt, I went on to chair its philosophy department, not an onerous task.
I was active on the board of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, went to a great many committee meetings, wrote reams of memoranda, but left no mark in my wake. Ditto as a member of the advisory board of the Carnegie Mellon University school of music, where none of my suggestions ever went beyond the chit-chat stage.
I participated diligently in numerous meetings of the Pittsburgh Public Art Advisory Committee, run by the city's Department of Planning. It was an elaborate enterprise that included interesting encounters with representatives of cities that had managed to institutionalize public art. Our own effort to do that in Pittsburgh fizzled, a word tailor-made for what didn't happen. There is more, but I will spare you.
How different my personal life!
I greatly enjoy pursuing a number of interests, all of them as an unschooled amateur. I have sung in choruses all my life, given that I cannot express my passion for music by playing an instrument. That started in high school and continued in college choruses, manned by fellow amateurs, accompanied, at best, by a student orchestra.
Until Pittsburgh. Here I was permitted to join the Mendelssohn Choir for numerous glorious performances with the PSO. For several of these, notably Stravinsky's wonderful "Symphony of Psalms," I had to work very hard to learn my part; but it was worth every bead of sweat.
I also was allowed to review about a dozen concerts for WQED's Sunday Arts Magazine. The high point was speaking my review of two PSO Israel concerts into the phone in my Jerusalem hotel room, to be broadcast later.
One way I used to exercise my interest in the visual arts was that Fannia and I would collect prints by sculptors. Mostly no one else paid attention to what was hanging on our walls until Richard Armstrong came to town as curator of the Carnegie Museum of Art. He mounted an exhibit called "Pittsburgh Collects" and included 10 of those prints.
I've more strenuously expressed my artistic side by making wood sculptures -- almost 50 of them -- for the last 45 years or so, a pursuit that accelerated notably after I retired from the academy. In previous domiciles those pieces left my wood shop -- I never called it a studio -- but got no farther than our living room. Without having to work too hard at it, I was able here to exhibit my work in annual shows of the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh and in four different galleries, sometimes as part of a group but also with just one other artist whose work hung on the walls while mine stood on pedestals. To be sure, the climb from showing one's work to selling it is steep.
Finally, there is the activity in which I am engaged now: writing, a metier in which I may be closest to being a professional. When I stepped down as provost I asked my friend John Craig, the late Post-Gazette editor, whether he would let me write an op-ed now and then. He agreed after I passed muster with some general-interest samples he asked for.
What you are reading is the 49th piece that this newspaper has published; more were written but didn't see the light of day. It has been a most gratifying run. Who would not like spouting off on whatever topic happens to be of interest? Enjoy it all I did.
I attribute the fact that I've had such a satisfying life in Pittsburgh to two things. The first is that Pittsburghers -- the people, not the institutions -- are warm, open and by nature inclined to be helpful; they are anything but snooty. But the people and the institutions together, I'd say, constitute a welcoming middle-sized pond that makes an ideal environment for a middle-sized fish.
One such creature will soon set out for Mexico, in yet one more retirement, to hang out with his grandchildren, Max and Eva.
First Published July 7, 2012 12:00 am