Saturday, May 30, 2009

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

From Toronto to Pittsburgh, with love:

One constant during the pendulum swing of prosperity has been the excellence of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, routinely regarded as being just outside the so-called "Big Five" North American symphonic ensembles: the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestra.

It is to the considerable credit of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra that when its late music director Karel Ancerl returned from a guest conducting engagement with the Pittsburgh orchestra in the late 1960s, he told me the two ensembles were of comparable quality.

I doubt that claim could be made today. Pittsburgh has invested far more in the development of its orchestra than Toronto, and it shows. Pittsburgh's boasts a $31 million (U.S.) annual budget and an endowment of around $80 million, compared with the $23 million (Canadian) budget and $21 million endowment of its northern cousin.

Like other Rust Belt cities such as Cleveland and Detroit, Pittsburgh has long seen its orchestra as a point of civic pride, and even in the recent years of economic decline all three cities have continued to support their orchestras at financial levels unheard of in Canada. ...

... Curious to learn what all the fuss was about, I travelled to Pittsburgh recently to meet the maestro and hear a program of Mozart, Beethoven and Richard Strauss, and came away from the experience with a three letter response: Wow!

The PSO continues to be fortunate in its home, one of the handsomest concert venues in North America, the elegantly restored 1926 Heinz Hall, a gift from one of the city's richest patrons (and reason enough for Pittsburghers to put extra ketchup on their fries).

While the PSO continues to serve as an international ambassador for the City, these trying financial times are taking a toll. Nonetheless, this urban legacy is a blessing instead of a curse. Such are the two sides of the Rust Belt coin.

World class amenities still dot America's urban frontier. But few folks living on either coast realize this. (blog reference Null Space) Ann Arbor's struggles to attract talent illustrate this point nicely:

And despite Ann Arbor's educated work force, employers here find Michigan's reputation as a failing manufacturing economy can deter potential hires from moving to the state.

At HandyLab, an Ann Arbor firm that makes a DNA-analysis device, Chief Executive Jeffrey Williams says he has had a hard time finding Ph.D.-level workers with highly specialized skills. His company, which has doubled to roughly 60 employees in the past year, has 10 job openings.

"It's definitely gotten much harder with all the stigma around Detroit," he says. "Somebody tries to pigeonhole us as Detroit, we say, 'No, it's Ann Arbor, it's a completely different environment.' "

I think the problem is that shrinking cities haven't figured out how to leverage the well-recognized Rust Belt brand. Instead, we get complete makeovers. The Rust Belt is now the Green Belt. Great Lakes region instead of the Midwest. The next Silicon Valley. I think this is the wrong way to go about generating a buzz, some positive exposure.

"Pittsburgh has invested far more in the development of its orchestra than Toronto, and it shows."

Most of what is left over from industrial era in Pittsburgh are assets to the region, not liabilities. Expansive urban parks. Stunning architecture. Wealthy foundations. And cultural offerings that inspire jealously in bigger, more cosmopolitan cities such as Toronto sporting a much more daunting cost of living.

1 comment:

David Jurca said...

The process of embracing and reframing the Rust Belt label vs. constant attempts at repudiating and denying our distinctive identity is an interesting issue that needs more attention.

From what I've seen, the Ruhr Valley in Germany has been successfully generating international attention for its attempts at re-branding:

In Cleveland, Kent State University's Urban Design Collaborative is actively engaging its community to imagine a new future for the city and region:

It will be fascinating to see the course these cities will take during the next 10 years.