Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is an important manufacturing and transportation center on the West slopes of the Appalachians where two rivers join to form the Ohio River, gateway to America's early interior settlement. Settled by Welsh miners, then Germans, the city quickly developed a tradition of singing festivals. The visiting Germania Orchestra from Boston played the first symphonic performance in Pittsburgh, leading to the founding the Pittsburgh Orchestral Society in 1854.
The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra was formed in 1896 by the Art Society. It quickly attained high standards under conductor Frederic Archer, and Victor Herbert, the Irish-born leading composer of Broadway operettas. Some critics disapproved, but his popular appeal gave the orchestra a wide following. Snobbery had the upper hand, with disastrous results, after Herbert left in 1904. Emil Paur, an intellectual German raised the orchestra's musical snobbery, but with a heavy dose of German repertory and a severe approach that hurt the box office. He refused to consider hiring musicians locally, importing them instead from Europe. The National Federation of Musicians threatened to strike. Half the musicians declined to renew their contracts for the 1908-1909 season. This occurred shortly after a stock market panic resulted in loss of the private donations that supported the orchestra. The orchestra cancelled its coming season in 1910, pending creation of a new financial plan. The orchestra was disbanded for the next sixteen years. The Art Society tried to fill the gap by booking touring orchestras.
The musicians themselves finally revived the orchestra. Players mainly from the various theaters held fourteen unpaid rehearsals and donated $25.00 each to play a Sunday concert on April 24, 1927. The next day nine of its board members were arrested for violating a Pennsylvania's law banning secular music-making on the Sabbath, an event which turned out to be good publicity. The orchestra played under Elias Breeskin and locally-born conductor Antonio Modarelli, and in 1936 was carried by radio network to the eastern two-thirds of the US. In 1937 it engaged Otto Klemperer as music director. History records that it took him only six weeks to raise it to international professional standards. Under music directors William Steinberg, André Previn, Lorin Maazel, and Maris Janssons, the PSO has remained one of America's top symphonies.
In its early years, the orchestra played at Carnegie Music Hall, then for many years at Syria Mosque (a Shriner's temple), but outgrew those facilities. H.J. Heinz II, of the famous ketchup-making family, financed the purchase and complete renovation of the Loew's Penn Theater, a great 1920s movie palace, as the orchestra's new home. The Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts was opened in 1971 and has been expanded and improved twice since then. It is owned and operated by the PSO and became the centerpiece of a complex of performing arts venues in the "Golden Triangle" formed by the confluence of the three rivers. The spacious hall has ample office and rehearsal space, and includes a fine dining restaurant that serves dinners or brunches before all concerts. ~ Joseph Stevenson