As renowned Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck begins his tenure as the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s ninth music director this Friday at its “Golden Gala,” the season promises a Jewish influence to a number of selections.
The Sept. 19 program will include works by Strauss, Chopin, Rossini and Berlioz.
“There will be a lot of short pieces with a lot of vitality,” said
Paul Silver, violist with the PSO. “It will be like opening four or five presents all on the first night of Chanukah.”
The regular subscription season will begin Sept. 26, and will feature Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, which “has some very Jewish moments,” Silver said. “The middle section sounds like a Klezmer band. In that section, you hear all Mahler’s Jewish roots.”
All of which is appropriate. Whether on stage or behind the scenes, raising money or making music, Jewish Pittsburgh and Jews in general have been intertwined with the venerable ensemble almost since its inception.
Although the PSO launched its first concert to rave reviews in 1896, it was forced to take a 16-year hiatus beginning in 1910, due to financial problems. But with the help of dedicated members of the Jewish community, the PSO was revived in 1926, laying the foundation for what would become a world-class symphony orchestra.
Bertha Rauh, along with her husband, Enoch, were instrumental members of The Pittsburgh Symphony Society, working tirelessly at raising funds to get the symphony back on its feet.
“It was just part of their lives, I guess,” said Richard E. Rauh, Bertha and Enoch’s grandson. “Especially my grandmother’s. She helped return the symphony to its former
“My grandmother was an intense, powerful woman,” Rauh remembered. “She was good at leaning on people. She had a lot to do with raising the money [to re-launch the symphony], and keeping it going.”
Surprisingly, the 1926 return of the symphony was draped in controversy, as its premiere performance was a free concert at the Syria Mosque — on a Sunday, when Pennsylvania “blue laws” were still on the books.
“It was a major event,” said Rauh. “You couldn’t play music on Sundays. But the board went ahead anyway. There were photographs in the newspaper of well-off board members being taken downtown [by the police.]”
Regardless of the reaction of the Pittsburgh police, the ultimate result, said Rauh, was that “the symphony began to play on Sundays.”
Richard E. Rauh’s father, Richard S. Rauh, continued the family tradition in unwavering support for the symphony, working to raise funds for its support until his death in 1954.
Rauh, who is himself a member of the board of the PSO, recalled that his father’s closest friend, Edward Specter, also played a prominent role in the symphony’s early
Specter became chairman of the Pittsburgh Symphony’s committee in 1927, and in 1936, resigned his position at a prominent law firm to devote his energy full time to turning Pittsburgh’s symphony into a major orchestra. Specter went on to become the manager of the symphony.
Specter was commonly referred to as “Mr. Symphony,” and lauded for his monumental efforts in building up the orchestra. In the Jan. 18, 1973 issue of The Jewish Chronicle, it was reported that, “It was Eddie and a few believers with gold-lined pockets who suffered the slings and labor pains of the early years (even to being arrested for alleged violation of the ancient ‘Blue Laws’) to make our Symphony more than a sometime thing.”
The historical Jewish connection to the Pittsburgh symphony has played out not just in financial support, but in artistic achievement as well. A review of the symphony’s list of conductors reveals its fair share of Jewish artists, including Elias Breskin, principal conductor from 1929 to 1930; Otto Klemperer, who in 1937 was credited with turning the orchestra into a major musical contender in just six weeks; Fritz Reiner, the symphony’s music director from 1938 to 1948, under whose tenure women played in the orchestra for the first time; and William Steinberg, who directed the symphony from 1952 to 1976, and by 1961 had increased audience attendance by 250 percent.
Jewish artists continued to build the PSO in the last quarter of the 20th century. From 1976 to 1984, four-time Academy Award winner Andre Previn led the orchestra, and brought it to its national debut in a series of specials on PBS. Lorin Mazel, from 1984 to 1996 developed a strong international following for the PSO. And Marvin Hamlisch is the PSO’s current Principal Pops conductor.
Honeck, though not Jewish, has a “real spiritual side,” which is apparent in his conducting, said Silver.
“He wants to bring out all the depth the music has to offer and all the
(Toby Tabachick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)