Pittsburgh's PSO as a Measure of the City

Lots and lots of Pittsburghers are accustomed to the measure of the city (even the measure of the region) being taken according to the fortunes of its professional sports teams. The Steelers - the apotheosis of sporting integrity, as a business and usually on the field. The Penguins - getting better all the time, with beloved ownership, an unexpected championship, and a new home facility on the way. The Pirates - the best modern stadium in the major leagues; a facility done right.

But a case could be made, and a good one, that Pittsburgh's arts institutions are the better lens for understanding the city's true ambitions, successes - and failures - if only because Pittsburgh's arts communities here are somewhat more thick-skinned than their sporting counterparts.

Many music lovers in Pittsburgh, for example, noticed the New York Times review of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's recent performance at Carnegie Hall: " all-out, intense and often beautiful music making."

Anthony Tommasini's review went on to offer some muted criticisms of the PSO's overall approach to its repertoire these days, and those criticisms were picked up by Andrew Druckenbrod at the Post-Gazette. Far from bemoaning the Times's finger-wagging, the Post-Gazette music critic offered what I thought was an appraisal of both the criticism and the PSO that was unusually balanced, coming from the hometown team:
Mr. Tommasini's institutional criticism cannot be easily rebutted. While the PSO is a cultural leader in Pittsburgh and advocates for the region internationally, it does lag behind other top orchestras in new music and audience engagement efforts. ...

I think the PSO could offer more innovative programming and outreach, and certainly more contemporary music. But it is early in Mr. Honeck's tenure and -- this is crucial -- it is a precarious time in the history of arts nonprofits.

It's hard to knock the orchestra for programming Beethoven and Mahler symphony cycles and Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky festivals when these composers are known entities at the box office as well as masterpieces of the repertoire. On the other hand, risk taking is important in times of crisis. ...

If the Times' critique was not the stunningly positive and unconditionally validating review the orchestra and Mr. Honeck hoped for, it is no small thing that their new partnership now is part of the national conversation. And the best way to persuade that nation further is to continue to perform at a high level.
(The conversation continued here, at the Classical Musings blog.)

What I particularly liked here was that this commentary was just about completely free of the entitlement anxiety that Pittsburgh's media and its residents so often display. Pittsburgh is a small city that's getting smaller, yet there is a Sally Field "You really like me!" mentality here, combining gratitude for recognition that we can't be sure is coming with relief that we still matter, that pops up all too frequently. To be sure, the PSO is a great institution ... but it is not entitled to a place on the national stage simply by virtue of its pedigree, let alone by virtue of its being located in this great city. Year in and year out, the organization has to prove itself worthy.

I don't read or hear that in Pittsburgh often enough.


2 Responses to "Pittsburgh's PSO as a Measure of the City"

C. Briem said... 2/14/2010 9:19 PM

I have always found it a little odd that there is so little mention here ever of the Cleveland Symphony which routinely gets ranked among the best in the world of late.

William said... 2/18/2010 5:52 PM

Cupcakes are so 2008. Macaroons are the new thing.

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

All opinions expressed at Pittsblog 2.0 are those of their respective authors and of no one (and no thing) else, least of all the University of Pittsburgh.

Pittsblog 2.0 has a motto: "It's steel good in Pittsburgh." Say it aloud, with a Pittsburgh accent.

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