A History of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

Victor Herbert


The Pittsburgh Orchestra

In 1898, a man steeped in popular music was chosen to lead the Orchestra. Victor Herbert was best known as a man of the theater and had composed a number of comic operas. A flamboyant conductor, he inspired musicians and audiences alike with his boundless enthusiasm.

"We need not be ashamed to take this orchestra to New York. ... I think it is the best orchestra, with the exception of possibly the Boston Symphony, in the United States.... I would like just to see our audience go to New York with the orchestra. It would most certainly create a most favorable impression." - Andréw Carnegie, as quoted in the Pittsburgh Post, November 18, 1899"

In its second season under Victor Herbert, the Orchestra received an invitation to perform two concerts at Carnegie Hall in NewYork City. Andréw Carnegie agreed to finance the trip.

The critics disagreed on Herbert, but ticket sales soared. Audiences flocked to hear the charismatic Irishman conduct a varied repertoire that included many of his own most popular works.

"How Pittsburg intelligence could ever select this clever bandmaster as its symphony director passes comprehension, unless indeed the people there never really appreciated the true significance of the artistic movement a permanent symphonic orchestra represents." - Musical Courier, July 17, 1901

"The discipline of the players is perfect. Their work plainly evidences arduous training under an experienced master of the orchestra, whose slightest look or gesture evokes instant response."- Pittsburgh Dispatch

edward-specterEdward Spector


Hard Times

Despite lavish praise from critics and a growing national reputation, hard times lay ahead for the Orchestra. A global panic in 1907 had an immediate impact on the ability and the resolve of the wealthy to support cultural organizations throughout the country. The city of Pittsburgh proved to be no exception.

To make matters worse, Paur's practice of hiring European musicians damaged relations with local musicians to the point where half of the orchestra's members refused to renew their contracts for the 1908-09 season. Subscriptions declined in the wake of the controversy.

By 1910 the Orchestra's future was in immediate jeopardy. The original guarantors had conceived of the orchestra as a self-sustaining institution. In reality they spent over $1 million to subsidize the organization in its first 15 years. A new approach was clearly needed and a plan was developed to raise an endowment. When insufficient funds were forthcoming, the orchestra canceled its upcoming season. No one suspected that 16 years would pass before Pittsburgh could resurrect its symphony orchestra.

"A crisis has been reached in the differences between Conductor Emil Paur, of the Pittsburg Orchestra, and the organized musicians of America.

So strained have matters become that President Joseph Weber, of the National Federation of Musicians, has sent Conductor Paur an ultimatum to the effect that if he persists in trying to bring musicians from Europe to fill existing vacancies in the Pittsburg Orchestra, every player in the big musical organization will be called out, and not allowed to play a note under Paur's leadership." - Pittsburg Press, July 19, 1907

"An endowment fund that will yield annually $50,000 is the goal, and with only four days remaining before the close of the campaign less than a third of that amount has been pledged.

The Orchestra gave a concert in Columbus, Ohio on Wednesday night. The music critic of the Ohio State Journal, in reporting the concert, said in part: '...What a lasting shame it would be to Pittsburg, the home of the wealthy, to lose such a superb organization for the lack of a few dollars.'" -Pittsburg Press, March 16, 1910

otto-klemperer-editOtto Klemperer



It took sixteen years, but on May 2, 1926, the dream of a new Pittsburgh Orchestra finally became reality. The players took part in fourteen unpaid rehearsals and contributed $25 each to sponsor a free public concert of the new Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

Following the newly restructured Orchestra's successful debut, the Symphony Society organized a Sunday concert series that began on April 24, 1927. Sunday was chosen because most of the player were under contract with theater orchestras during the week.

The following Monday, nine board members were arrested for violating the Pennsylvania Blue Laws, which forbade secular music-making on the Sabbath. The publicity didn't hurt the PSO. The board's fight to keep the series alive whetted the public's appetite for symphony concerts.

"The Orchestra is composed of players about town, who are so sincere in their purpose of founding a symphony orchestra that they gave their time for rehearsals and their services for last night's concert to prove possibilities with material at hand. In a few months' time these good men have accomplished wonders under Elias Breeskin, the concertmaster, and only at the last moment called in Richard Hageman, a well known Metropolitan conductor, to put the finishing touches on their playing." - Gazette Times, May 3, 1926

In 1930, Antonio Modarelli assumed his post as the Music Director of the Orchestra. He had spent the previous eight years in Berlin composing and conducting, and was the only American composer to be elected to the prestigious "Society of German Composers." He was Music Director until 1937, but he never quite won the whole-hearted acceptance of Pittsburgh audiences, in part because he was a local boy, born in nearby Braddock.

In 1936, the Symphony's concerts are broadcast nationally for the first time. Pittsburgh Plate Glass sponsors 26 programs, which are carried over every major radio station east of Denver.

Several internationally known guest conductors were invited to lead the Orchestra during the 1937-38 season, among them Carlos Chavez, Eugene Goossens, and Fritz Reiner.

In 1937, the PSO engaged renowned conductor Otto Klemperer to reorganize and expand the Orchestra. A born teacher, he is credited with turning the orchestra into a power to be reckoned with in just six weeks.

"The entire orchestra has already acquired a homogeneity of tone that seems hardly possible in so short a life. Dr. Klemperer calls it a baby of three weeks but it is a lusty infant and its song promises sturdy manhood." - Pittsburgh SunTelegraph

"Pittsburgh has been transformed overnight from a barbaric to a civilized community by a magician and his name is Dr. Otto Klemperer" - The Musical Forecast, November, 1937

fritz-reinerFritz Reiner


The Reiner Years

The PSO enjoyed ten prolific years with the legendary Fritz Reiner as Music Director. An uncompromising conductor, Reiner extracted precise articulation and phrasing from his players. The Orchestra's reputation grew dramatically, netting the ensemble a high-profile recording contract and an invitation to perform abroad. Several of the world's most noted composers felt privileged to have the PSO perform world premieres of their works under Reiner's authoritative direction.

Reiner had a volatile temper and demanded perfection from his players. His was an extremely small beat which forced the musicians to remain alert at all times. At one rehearsal a bass player put a telescope to his eye. When he explained to Reiner that he was "trying to find the beat," the conductor fired him on the spot!

Women joined the Orchestra for the first time during World War II. Eighteen came aboard in 1942 and twenty-four more in 1944.

Reiner left the Orchestra in 1948 to conduct at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City and went on to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. From 1948 to 1952, the Orchestra played under a succession of distinguished guest conductors. These included Leopold Stokowski, Leonard Bernstein, Erich Leinsdorf, Charles Munch, Paul Paray, and Victor de Sabata.

The best conducting technique is that which achieves the maximum musical result with the minimum effort. The only general rule is to infuse all gestures with precision, clarity, and vitality. - Fritz Reiner

Reiner on Leonard Bernstein, 1944: "Wait until you see that kid conduct tonight. Mit einem Schmiss [with fiery verve]! Watch out for him. He's going to make a real career."

Leonard Bernstein on Reiner, 1989: "He was a genius, apart from all other conductors I've ever known. He was tyrannical, he was cruel, he was bitter, he was ruthless in his treatment of us if we didn't know what was happening. His standards were incredibly high, and I bless him for it."

Fritz Reiner peered over his spectacles at the 18 women in the Pittsburgh Symphony -which boasts more femininity than any other major orchestra in the country - and remarked whimsically that he ought to call them "Fritz Reiner and his All-Girl Orchestra." The Pittsburgh Symphony conductor said he didn't mind having so many women in the orchestra. In fact, he said he liked it very much. "It's much easier to get along with many women than with one," he philosophized. - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 9, 1942

william-steinbergWilliam Steinberg


The Steinberg Years

In its 23 years under the direction of William Steinberg, the PSO remained a superb ensemble and developed an eager and devoted following. By 1961, audiences had increased 250 percent. What's more, in the five preceding years, the PSO was the only American orchestra to sell out all its concerts by season tickets.

Steinberg's talents had long been recognized by some of the world's greatest conductors. As a protégé of Otto Klemperer, Steinberg had a glamorous career in his homeland of Germany before fleeing the Nazis in 1936. Arturo Toscanini invited him to organize the newly formed Palestine Orchestra in Tel Aviv (today's Israel Philharmonic Orchestra) and, in 1937, to become his associate conductor at the NBC Orchestra. Steinberg went on to direct the Buffalo Philharmonic before becoming Music Director of the PSO in 1952. The Boston Symphony Orchestra engaged him as Music Director from 1969 to 1972, a post he held concurrently with his PSO Music Directorship.

On August 14, 1964, the PSO embarked on an 11-week, 24,000 mile tour to 14 nations in Europe and the Near East. Sponsored by the U.S. State Department, the tour earned the Smoky city a reputation for producing more than steel and elevated the image of American culture abroad.

One must always respect the character of the music and never try to grow lush foliage in a well tempered English garden. - William Steinberg

Steinberg conducted this complex work with amazing control, exacting the fullest possible interest from the score. - Pittsburgh Press, January 9, 1954

Some of the Orchestra's best recordings were made in the Syria Mosque where the PSO performed from 1926 until 1971. The building was torn down in 1992 to the dismay of many who had attended concerts there.

The opening of Heinz Hall on September 10, 1971 marked the completion of an 11-year campaign, initiated by Henry J. Heinz II. The resplendent concert hall stands as a testimonial to the civic spirit that has supported Pittsburgh's cultural organizations since the turn of the century.

At the time of Steinberg's death in 1978, his stepson remembered him with these words in Music Journal: "He moved to Pittsburgh in 1952. His career reached its zenith there. He built the Orchestra into an instrument totally sensitive to his will, his touch. He loved them like his children, and criticized them as such. For twenty-five years he made beautiful music with that orchestra. Even when their sound was not as good as that of greater ensembles, they played for him beyond their capacities. He was desolate when he retired, he did not want to let go."

andre-previnAndré Previn


The Previn Years

In addition to his considerable talents as a conductor, André Previn brought to the PSO his virtuosity at the piano and a musical sensibility shaped in Hollywood. He began studying piano in his native Berlin at the age of six before the rise of the Nazi regime sent his family first to Paris and later to Los Angeles. In his teenage years he began composing, arranging and conducting film scores. The four-time Academy Award Winner developed an equally successful career as a Jazz pianist before turning to conducting in 1960. In 1968 he was appointed Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. He held that post until 1979, having already assumed the Music Directorship of the PSO in 1976.

Previn often brought jazz to the concert hall. In February 1977, the PSO and Previn made their national debut on PBS with eight specials, "Previn and the Pittsburgh." Alcoa sponsored the award-winning series, which ran for three years.

The choice of Previn is a great one. He is a man not afraid of mixing new works with old and his shaping of programs for the orchestra should offer some of the best variety seen here in years. - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 21, 1974

After the two-hour, intensively experienced concert, one is ready to believe that the Pittsburgh Symphony musicians can play anything: rococo, classical, late romantic and modern music with the same animated accuracy. - Der Tagesspiegel, Berlin

lorin-maazelLorin Maazel


The Maazel Years

Long acknowledged to be one of America's great orchestras, the PSO developed an unrivaled international following during its years under Lorin Maazel. The Orchestra gained further stature as Maazel led tours of Europe, Asia, and the Americas, added first-rank players to vital positions, and programmed season-long retrospectives that appealed to audiences and critics alike.

Following Previn's departure in 1984, Maazel agreed to act as Music Consultant while the Orchestra sought a permanent Music Director. He was offered and accepted that position in 1988, having already dazzled the world and won the hearts of the players in the course of numerous guest appearances and three acclaimed tours.

For Maazel, the journey back to Pittsburgh was a homecoming. His family settled here while he was still a young child so he could continue to study with his conducting teacher, Vladimir Bakaleinikov, who had become Associate Conductor of the PSO in 1939.

Maazel later joined the Orchestra as a violinist and apprentice conductor while studying at the University of Pittsburgh. His career soon took him to Europe where in 1960 he became the first American invited to direct at the Bayreuth Festival. He went on to become Music Director of the Deutsche Oper, The Cleveland Orchestra, the Orchestre National de France, and the Vienna Opera before returning to Pittsburgh. In 1993 he assumed an additional music directorship, as artistic head of the Symphony Orchestra of the Bavarian Radio in Munich.

The musical legacy of Maazel's artistic leadership is an Orchestra built upon the multifaceted talents of virtuosic players. For years to come, the high artistic standards inspired by this greatest of living American conductors will be upheld within the Orchestra.

Also under Maestro Maazel's direction, the PSO commissioned several works to showcase principal players. The first was the Benjamin Lees Hom Concerto, which premiered on May 14,1992 and was performed later that year on the PSO's European tour by William Caballero. Four commissions followed: Ellen Taaffe Zwilich's Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra for Nancy Goeres, Leonardo Balada's Music for Oboe and Orchestra for Cynthia Koledo DeAlmeida, Rodion Shchedrin's Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra for George Vosburgh, Roberto Sierra's Evocaciones and Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, and David Stock's Violin Concerto for Andrés Cárdenes.

The Orchestra has produced many fine compact discs with Maazel, among them a complete cycle devoted to the works of Sibelius. The PSO won a Grammy award for its 1992 recording with Yo-Yo Ma of works for cello and orchestra.

The Pittsburgh Symphony sounds glorious, with the same ultra-smooth surface that Maazel once produced in Cleveland. - Los Angeles Times

Whether in old-Vienna or Steel-City Pittsburgh: Superb music is made with Lorin Maazel. - Alles/Wien, Vienna

Beginning in 1990, Maazel gave audiences the chance to gain a deeper appreciation of some of the world's great composers with seasonal retrospectives featuring Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky. During the 1994-95 season, Maazel placed American works in the spotlight by including one American composition in each of 24 concert programs. For the latter the PSO was awarded the ASCAP/John Edwards Award for Commitment to American Music by the American Symphony Orchestra League.

mariss-jansonsMariss Jansons


The Second Century

The PSO has embarked on a second century of superb music making with the support of a devoted and international audience. More than half a million people hear the PSO in concert every year, and millions more enjoy the orchestra's splendid performances through radio broadcasts and recordings.

In order to maintain the artistic excellence which distinguishes the Orchestra, a capital campaign was launched in 1993 to increase the PSO's endowment by $70 million. The receipt of an extraordinary lead gift of $20 million from the Howard Heinz and Vira I. Heinz Endowments - the largest single gift ever awarded a symphony orchestra capital campaign - gave the Orchestra confidence it needed to meet its goal and fulfill its mission for many years to come.

On April 10, 1995, the Orchestra announced the appointment of Mariss Jansons to succeed Maazel in 1996. As eighth Music Director of the PSO, he ushered in the next century of extraordinary music making. His performances and recordings with the Oslo Philharmonic, the St. Petersburg (formerly the Leningrad) Philharmonic Orchestra, and the London Philharmonic led the London Times to call him "one of the most exciting conductors in the world today."

marvin-hamlischMarvin Hamlisch

In 1995, the PSO also welcomed Marvin Hamlisch as the Orchestra's first Principal Pops Conductor. Composer of over forty motion picture scores and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway show A Chorus Line, Hamlisch previously appeared as guest conductor of symphony orchestras around the world. With three Oscars, four Grammys, a Tony and three Golden Globe awards to his credit, Hamlisch eagerly began exploring new avenues of music-making with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

In January 2004, the PSO with conductor Gilbert Levine became the first American orchestra to perform at the Vatican for Pope John Paul II to commemorate the Pontiff's Silver Jubilee celebration and his lifelong commitment to interfaith understanding and outreach of the Abrahamic faiths.

The appearance at the Vatican was an expression of the highest regard for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's artistic excellence and standing in the worldwide music community.

Music can make a difference. It has the potential to bring all people together. - Marvin Hamlisch

trioMarek Janowski, Sir Andréw Davis, and Yan Pascal Tortelier

2005 - 2007

The Team for the Times

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra entered a bold new era with the 2005-06 season introducing its innovative model for artistic leadership. The team of Sir Andréw Davis, serving as Artistic Advisor; Yan Pascal Tortelier, Principal Guest Conductor; and Marek Janowski, Endowed Guest Conductor Chair, bring to the orchestra significant expertise in a richly diverse repertoire. Each focuses on different areas of repertoire, which highlights their strengths and interests.

Sir Andréw Davis, while providing overall programming input regarding the entire season and leading the orchestra in a variety of styles, pays special attention to the music of British and American composers.

Yan Pascal Tortelier focuses on French composers and hidden treasures of the 20th century along with music of the 21st century.

Marek Janowski has had a relationship with the Orchestra since 1991, conducting the great masters of the German-Austrian repertoire that have been central to the identity of the orchestra since the days of former Music Director William Steinberg.

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manfred-honeckManfred Honeck

2008 to the Present

Meet Manfred Honeck

In January 2007, after several highly successful guest appearances leading the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Manfred Honeck was appointed its ninth music director, and began this position at the start of the 2008-2009 season. Austrian born, Honeck studied music at the Academy of Music in Vienna. He performed in various capacities with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra — as violinist, violist and guest conductor. In addition to his directorship of the Pittsburgh Symphony, Honeck has served as music director of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Staatsoper Stuttgart and as guest conductor of the Czech Philharmonic.

At the time of his appointment, Honeck remarked, “It is with great joy that I assume the post of music director of one of the world's finest orchestras. I am aware that this wonderful task is accompanied by great responsibility with regard to maintaining and enhancing the high level of performance developed by my predecessors and the orchestra together. It is no exaggeration to say that the orchestra and I got on like a house on fire.”

The sentiment could not be truer, with the orchestra and Maestro Honeck receiving rave reviews for their collaborations, including their many recordings together, with the first in 2009 on the Exton label, Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben. Under Honeck, the Pittsburgh Symphony has had numerous GRAMMY nominations, including three GRAMMY award nominations in a single year. In 2018, the PSO won two GRAMMY awards for the album Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5; Barber: Adagio in the categories Best Orchestral Performance and Best Engineered Album (Classical) with engineer Mark Donahue.

In May 2009, Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony embarked on a tour to Asia. The first international tour with Honeck as music director marked the Orchestra’s debut in Shanghai, China and Kaohsiung, Taiwan, and the Orchestra’s first performance in Beijing since 1987. In fall 2009, Honeck and the orchestra were invited to close the prestigious Lucerne Festival in Lucerne, Switzerland. The Symphony has gone on many tours since then, performing in concert halls across Europe and in Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center within the U.S. Honeck has extended his contract with the Pittsburgh Symphony for a remarkable third time, through the 2027-2028 season.

Honeck continues to create remarkable collaborations between the Pittsburgh Symphony and other conductors and musicians as well. His staged version of Handel’s Messiah set across three periods of American history with stage director Samuel Helfrich in 2011 was a remarkable achievement. Helfrich returned to work with Honeck and the Symphony on a semi-staged presentation of Bach’s St. John Passion in 2016 and Haydn’s Creation in 2017.  Superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Itzhak Perlman, pianist Lang Lang, and violinist Joshua Bell have performed as guest soloists at Pittsburgh Symphony gala concerts, and notable debuts during Honeck’s tenure include pianists Daniil Trifonov and Til Fellner, percussionist Martin Grubinger and violinist Augustin Hadelich, among others.

Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony are also deeply committed to the Music for the Spirit program, a series of concerts that evolved from the historic appearance of the Pittsburgh Symphony at the Vatican in 2004. This series of community concerts developed a partnership between the orchestra and local faith communities and celebrates the spiritual and universal message of music.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic caused the Pittsburgh Symphony to cancel the remainder of its concerts for the 2019-2020 season. Instead, the Symphony offered online concerts throughout the 2020-2021 season. The Pittsburgh Symphony celebrated its 125th anniversary with an online gala in February 2021. In summer of 2021, the Pittsburgh Symphony began to perform to a live audience outdoors, and eventually in the fall, Heinz Hall was reopened to audiences.

In 2020, the Pittsburgh Symphony welcomed its second Principal Pops Conductor, Byron Stripling. A conductor, trumpet virtuoso, singer, and actor, Stripling has been a featured soloist with pops orchestras across the country. He has performed with jazz notables from the Count Basie Orchestra and the bands of Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, Lionel Hampton, and more. Stripling’s first concert as Principal Pops conductor was an online performance in October 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. He continued to have multiple “firsts” with the symphony, performing his first in-person concert in summer of 2021 at Hartwood Acres, and his first in-person Pops concert of the season at Heinz Hall in fall of the same year.

The Pittsburgh Symphony is committed to Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion.  Community engagement programs such as the Lift Every Voice concert seek to emphasize the accomplishments of Black artists and expand representation on stage. Sensory-Friendly concerts are designed to provide an inclusive concert experience for audiences with sensory sensitivities. Since 2007, the symphony has offered the Paul J. Ross Fellowship, a two-year pre-professional program. This program, now named in honor of the first Black musician to receive a fulltime contract with the PSO, enables young musicians identifying as Black or African American to dedicate themselves to the pursuit of an orchestral career.

The Pittsburgh Symphony continues to strive towards great music in every life by enriching the lives of Pittsburgh residents and beyond. Learn more about the PSO’s mission here.

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