It's fireworks season. Can culture cope?
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Since we're still trying to shake off the outdated, hell-with-the-lid-off image of our now-breathtaking city, we Pittsburghers leap on any -- or almost any -- flaw that would mar our "Best of the World" status.
Like the Port Authority's failure to get trains to and from the North Shore on Marathon weekend. We were all over that one: Trains will run or heads will roll!
But there was something else that didn't happen that weekend -- and it was a wonderful exception to a longstanding and glaring oversight in Pittsburgh's world-class aspirations.
It's the case of the fireworks that didn't go boom in the night. They usually do -- and sometimes at the worst possible moment.
Hereabouts we do love our pyrotechnics. We have them for everything or for no reason at all. We love 'em so much that George Romero spoofed us in "Land of the Dead" by having Pittsburgh's post-apocalyptic government use a mobile fireworks unit to control the zombies.
Just days before the marathon, I suddenly remembered a concert a year or two ago in which a slow, shimmering symphonic movement was utterly destroyed by the sudden cacophony of fireworks going off nearby.
It wasn't a brief salute for a home run at PNC Park; it was a prolonged production.
I remembered looking at my $80 ticket stub that night and thinking, "Seriously?" Me -- and another 2,000 or so paying customers. People talked of nothing else after the show, and they weren't happy, but no one was sure what event was responsible for ruining ours.
This year I'd bought two tickets for the Friday May 4 concert and felt strongly that "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" would not be improved by some "bombs bursting in air." So I made a few phone calls to find out what was planned citywide for the weekend -- and whether there might be a column, oh, bursting to be written.
The city confirmed a fireworks permit and referred me to Pyrotecnico's Derek Weber. Mr. Weber said the display, part of a Pittsburgh Marathon VIP party, would be 3 minutes long and could happen anytime between 8 and 10:30 p.m. -- whenever he got the cue by cell phone.
Marathon spokeswoman Jennifer May noted that these would be "ground fireworks" -- they wouldn't be set off over the river -- "so they are not as noisy."
I asked whether marathon organizers had had any interaction with any of the cultural venues or any city office to prevent potential conflicts. Ms. May said she'd contacted the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust twice but had no response.
She mentioned that the fireworks had to go off by 9 p.m., when the event concluded; would something between 8:45 and 9 work for the symphony? Since that was outside my job purview, I referred her to the PSO artistic director Bob Moir and vice versa.
And I never heard another thing. Well, I heard from Mr. Moir that he and Ms. May had "a great conversation -- very constructive," but at the concert, I heard nothing but music.
That's because the huge, complex undertaking that is the Pittsburgh Marathon did some quick footwork on the very day of their event and made sure their fireworks went off during the PSO's intermission. They win my Most Elegant Civic Partner of the Year award for 2012, and it's not even June yet.
That's the world-class attitude Pittsburgh is so eager to promote. But Light Up Night and plenty of Pirates' Firework Nights still loom -- and boy do they boom! -- without a whiff of attempt at civic cooperation.
Lou Castelli, director of external affairs at Pittsburgh Public Theater, said by email:
"Fireworks have interrupted Public Theater performances on numerous occasions -- most significantly during Light Up Night, when the displays are larger and noisier than usual. But the show must go on! Since it's Pittsburgh, our audiences are understanding."
Then they are better people than I am. As a regular at all the Downtown arts venues, I don't believe customers who've paid to enjoy one event should have their experience ruined by the uproar of another event, when the timing of that uproar is flexible.
All of these entities -- sports teams, arts organizations, international events like the Marathon -- are essential to healthy city life. As Mr. Moir put it, "We should all be working with our neighbors Downtown to make sure everyone has a good experience on the same night."
And they are capable of cooperation. The Pirate Parrot appeared at the PSO's Fiddlesticks concert Saturday morning and led the packed hall of kids and parents in "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." Now the Pirates should return the favor.
Light-Up Night is still five months away. Planners, start talking.
First Published May 21, 2012 12:00 am