Jews give their own take on proposed PSO trip to Iran

Jews give their own take on proposed PSO trip to Iran

David Stock believes in music.

And that’s why the retired music professor from Duquesne University and recognized composer whose “Sixth Symphony” was performed last October by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, supports efforts by the PSO to arrange a concert tour of Iran later this year.

“Of course, it’s a great idea,” Stock said. “There’s no question that this is the time.”

He was one of several area Jews this past week who chimed in on the groundbreaking news. Several Jewish leaders contacted by the Chronicle declined to comment. Many who did supported the effort. Others were understandably skeptical.

The Chronicle will continue to monitor reaction to the story.

Iran, particularly while Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was president, has been  extremely anti-Semitic. It has vowed to wipe Israel off the map, and it hosted a conference for Holocaust denial.

Despite the volatile rhetoric, Stock was hopeful things may be changing.

“Everything else is loosening up and September would be a great time,” Stock said. “The caveat, of course, is diplomacy continues until then. Obviously music is a much better means of communication than bombs.”

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported last week that the PSO and American Middle East Institute (AMEI)  — with the knowledge of the U.S. State Department — are trying to arrange a concert tour of the Islamic republic in September.

The PSO was the last American symphony (at the time conducted by William Steinberg) to tour Iran back in 1964. If the current efforts are successful, this tour will mark the 50th anniversary of that visit.

Even as the Iranian government espouses harsh anti-American, anti-Israel rhetoric, Stock said the people themselves may be a different story.

According to visitors to the country whom Stock has spoken with, “the Iranian people themselves are very pro-American, the young people especially. They like Americans; they want to be Americans; they want to wear American clothes under their schmates, and they want to listen to American music. So anything that gets rid of these horrible tensions is good for both sides.”

Simin Yazdgerdi Curtis, president and CEO of the AMEI, said there is much work to be done before the tour becomes a reality, not the least of which is fundraising. (She estimated the cost of the trip at $4 million.)

For that reason, she plans to meet with as many people as possible to build support for the tour, including members of the Jewish community.

Curtis, who herself is half-Iranian, pointed to the 2009 Iranian revolution following the disputed re-election of then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a sign that the Iranian people and their government do not necessarily think alike.

“It was good for Americans to see there are different points of view in Iranian society, but we don’t see that in our news — only government pronouncements calling us the Great Satan and so forth,” Curtis said. “We want to get beyond the negative; this is as far as we have come in three and a half decades [of enmity] with Iran.”

Stock isn’t the only Jewish Pittsburgher to support the PSO’s efforts. The Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee released a statement by its president, Marshall Dayan, lauding the proposed concert tour.

“We applaud the PSO’s consideration of an upcoming trip to Iran,” Dayan said in his statement. “Cultural exchanges between nations and peoples can help to open hearts and minds to the beauty and splendor of the wide diversity of cultures and peoples, but also remind us that we all have so much in common, despite our differences. What better language than music to open lines of communication between two nations that have long harbored suspicion and distrust of one another.”

Robert Levin, president of Levin Furniture and a supporter of AMEI, visited Iran for 16 days in 2011 with his sister, Rachel, and mother, Sally Levin. He pronounced the trip “eye opening.”

“The Iranian people were incredibly hospitable, friendly and spontaneous, interested and warm to and incredibly curious about us as Americans,” he said. “They were so eager to tell us how much they appreciated our culture.”

And he lauded Iranian culture, which is some 2,500 years old and boasts remarkable poetry, music and architecture.

In fact, he said the pride the West and Iran place in their cultures is something the two societies have in common.

“We really didn’t talk politics too much” Levin said of his group of seven tourists, five of whom were Jewish. “The party line, of course, in the state-controlled news stations is pretty relentless anti-Israel or anti-U.S., but the people, especially the young, educated people — and there are many — they don’t buy the party line,” he said. “The overall feeling you got is that people admired the United States.”

Levin called the idea of the PSO visiting Iran “exciting, creative, fun and very gutsy.”

Not everyone was as supportive.

“The efforts of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra to perform in Iran are certainly laudable, but in my opinion, premature,” Stuart Pavilack, executive director of the Zionist Organization of America-Pittsburgh District, said in a prepared statement.

Concerned about human rights abuses in Iran, its support for a despotic regime in Syria and Iranian President Hasan Rouhani’s furthering his country’s interests under the “guise of negotiations,” Pavilack said the symphony and AMEI are moving too fast.

“I am deeply concerned not only for Israel’s safety and security, but that of the world as well,” Pavilack said. “If asked, I would suggest to the PSO to explore its options to perform in Iran, but not to make any plans until 2015.”

But Rabbi Aaron Bisno of Rodef Shalom Congregation, which has a long history with the symphony, including hosting last year’s Music of the Spirit concert, backed the PSO-AMEI initiative.

“I think it’s a great overture, no pun intended,” Bisno said. “I’m proud the PSO could represent Pittsburgh and the city on the front lines of cultural diplomacy.”

Asked about he long-standing hostility from Iran to Israel and the United States, Bisno said music was a good first step bridging the hatred.

“How would you have us deal with one another if you would rule out quietly sitting down and listening to music with one another?” Bisno asked. “We can do worse than sitting together listening to music, and the fact that the PSO might be the one to bring us together … I’m proud.”

If the tour does come to fruition, Stock said there should be one condition.

“If the Pittsburgh Symphony does this, they absolutely must take some Pittsburgh music with them, not just Beethoven or Mozart,” he said.

And Stock has just the music — no, not his.

He recommended Reza Vali, an Iranian-born composer, who just happens to live in Squirrel Hill. Stock described him as “the leading Iranian composer in the world.”

Vali, who said he was “not at liberty” to comment on the story and referred questions to the PSO, teaches at Carnegie Mellon University. His orchestral works have been performed by the PSO, the Seattle Symphony, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, the Baltimore Symphony, the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and Orchestra 2001.

“He’s a true Iranian and he’s a true Pittsburgher,” Stock said. “His music has become more and more Persian over time.

“It would be extremely important,” Stock added. “It always upsets me when American symphonies go abroad and don’t take any American music with them. This way, they get a twofer.”

(Lee Chottiner can be reached at

read more: