By Nick Eustis
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
In 1895, Andrew Carnegie gave the city of Pittsburgh an enormous cultural gift. Among his endowments, a public library, museums of art and natural history, and an orchestra he hoped would take a permanent place among the great symphonic organizations of the world.
His legacy has persisted to the modern day as, this year, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra celebrates its 125th season. On February 10, the leadership of the orchestra announced the programming for this auspicious anniversary at Heinz Hall.
“It’s a milestone that very, very few have reached, and that we can be quite proud of as one of the very oldest orchestras and music institutions in this country,” said Mary Persin, vice president of artistic planning at the Pittsburgh Symphony.
Starting September 25, Pittsburgh Symphony will begin this milestone season, titled “Pittsburgh Symphony and You: Extraordinary Together.” It will be a season laden with both audience favorites and new musical faces.
Longtime fans of the orchestra will welcome another season of the PNC Pops, which sees the orchestra tackle popular music ranging from show tunes to classic rock. Under the direction of their new Pops conductor, Byron Stipling, the orchestra will showcase the music of ABBA, George Gershwin, Motown, and more.
Another returning program is the annual Lift Every Voice concert, which aims to celebrate Pittsburgh’s cultural legacy. This year’s concert highlights the experiences of black women with the premiere of an original work of music, video and text, created by three African-American women, multimedia artist Njaimeh Njie, writer Jessica Lanay Moore, and award-winning composer Kathyrn Bostic.
In addition to these staples of the orchestra’s programming, the classical program will contain a number of important firsts, appropo for such a historic season.
“It is only fitting that the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra celebrates its 125th anniversary season with significant partnerships, collaborations, premieres and debuts that extend and amplify our distinguished history,” said Melia Tourangeau, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Symphony.
“On every one of the twenty Mellon Grand Classics weekends, there is a significant first in one way or another,” said Persin.
15 works will grace the Heinz Hall stage for the very first time this season, seven of which are world premieres of pieces commissioned by the orchestra. Furthermore, ten artists will be making their Heinz Hall debut as well.
One of these artists making his Pittsburgh debut is Wynton Marsalis, a renowned jazz trumpeter and composer who was the first to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music with a jazz composition. Violinist Nicola Benedetti recently received the Grammy Award for Best Classical Instrumental Solo for her performance of Marsalis’ new Violin Concerto in D Major. Marsalis and Benedetti will perform the Violin Concerto as part of the season’s programming.
Another major Pittsburgh debut will take place on the orchestra’s 125th anniversary day, a performance of the seldom-heard Symphony No. 8 by Gustav Mahler. The symphony requires a massive number of musicians, including a very large orchestra, a double choir, and a children’s choir.
“It is called the ‘symphony of a thousand’ because of the sheer volume of people required to bring it to life,” said Persin. “We can proudly say we will have over 500 choir members that will be with us as part of this performance.”
In addition to Pittsburgh premieres, seven works will be performed for the very first time this season. All seven works were commissioned or co-commissioned by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Michigan-based composer Michael Daugherty will be the first of these world premieres, with his original work “Fifteen” being part of the season’s kickoff performance. Daugherty’s piece will be based on the work of Andy Warhol and his impact on Pittsburgh culture.
In yet another exciting first, the Pittsburgh Symphony will host world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma for a three day residency. He will open his residency with a talk about the importance of culture to being a citizen of the world, and will close it with a one-night only performance.
While it is an important year for the Pittsburgh Symphony, it is also a milestone year for the classical music world at large. 2020 marks Ludvig van Beethoven’s 250th birthday, and the orchestra is celebrating his immense musical legacy in several ways.
All five of Beethoven’s piano concerti will be performed in a single weekend by pianist Rudolf Buchbinder, who will also conduct the orchestra from the piano. The orchestra also has plans to perform all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies in one week, and perform all 16 of his string quartets at various Carnegie Library and ACLA locations. Most of the symphony and string quartet performances will be free to the public.
The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s 125th season will be a season that truly embraces the many facets of classical music today, from the time-tested classics to the work of contemporary artists worldwide, from many backgrounds. It is this commitment to the diversity of musical experience that exemplifies their season’s subtitle: “Extraordinary Together.”
For information and tickets, visit pittsburghsymphony.org.