Reflections from the PSO's Patricia Prattis Jennings

Written by Elizabeth Bloom on .

This is an amazing story:

Patricia Prattis Jennings, a Pittsburgh native and graduate of Westinghouse High School, became the first black woman to be awarded a contract with a major symphony orchestra when she was named principal keyboardist of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 1966.

That was just one of the many color lines she crossed while working with the PSO. Ms. Jennings started playing full-time for the orchestra in 1964, when then-music director William Steinberg hired her, and she received a contract two years later. She was thus the first black musician to perform full-time with the PSO and the second black musician to receive a contract with the orchestra. (Paul Joseph Ross, a member of the second violin section, signed his contract in 1965.)

20100317HOJenningswestaPatricia Prattis Jennings, the PSO's principal keyboardist from 1966-2006, crossed several color lines in the orchestra world. (Post-Gazette archives)

Remarkably, Ms. Jennings — whose father, P.L. Prattis, was the editor of the Pittsburgh Courier — made her debut as a soloist with the PSO in 1956, a full decade before her appointment. The anniversary of that solo turn came last week, and Ms. Jennings, who retired from the orchestra in 2006, shared memories from that special moment over her mailing list last week: 

"It just occurred to me that it was sixty years ago today, February 26, 1956, that I first performed as a piano soloist with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. A description of that day and the circumstances leading up to it are attached.

"That concert took place several years before the following:

'In 1959 the conductor Leopold Stokowski hired Shirley Verrett to sing the Wood Dove in a performance of Schoenberg's "Gurrelieder" with the Houston Symphony, but the orchestra's board would not allow a black soloist to appear. To make amends, a shaken Stokowski took Ms. Verrett to the Philadelphia Orchestra for a performance of Falla's "Amor Brujo," which led to a fine recording.'" [credit: New York Times]

(FYI: She also has a website, Pat's Ponderings, and wrote a book of essays, "In One Era and Out the Other." Be sure to check out this great WQED feature about her, too.)

03-28-16 courier 420An image from Kenneth Love's film "Newspaper of Record: The Pittsburgh Courier 1907-1965" shows Patricia Prattis Jennings (then known as Patricia Prattis) sitting at a linotype machine at the Pittsburgh Courier, when she was an intern for the paper's church news section. Her father was Courier editor P.L. Prattis. (Post-Gazette archives)

Here is the text of the essay Ms. Jennings attached to her email:

"On a sunny May afternoon in 1955 I was invited to the Oakland apartment of silver-haired Pittsburgh Symphony board member Betsy Bramer to play for the orchestra's music director Dr. William Steinberg. A second young pianist was there, too, Boyce Reid, from Mt. Lebanon, an exclusive Pittsburgh suburb, lily-white then and lily-white community these many decades later.

"With the confidence that only a young person could possess I played a portion of the Mozart 'Coronation' Concerto. Boyce played excerpts from the Beethoven Concerto No. 1.

"I don't remember if I understood exactly why we were playing for Dr. Steinberg. But later that afternoon a call came from the Pittsburgh Symphony telling me I had been chosen to be the soloist, the following February, on the Pittsburgh Symphony Junior concert at Syria Mosque.

"The Pittsburgh Symphony Junior was an orchestra, similar to the later Side-By-Side ensembles, in which high school musicians, chosen by audition, sat chair-for-chair with the professional musicians. As you can imagine, the stage was bursting at the seams with all of those musicians.

"In 1955 and 1957, as a violinist in the Westinghouse High School orchestra, I had played in the second violin section of the Symphony Junior. My stand partner was the kind, soft-spoken Jack Goldman who eventually became a professional colleague.

"But on February 26, 1956, as a pianist, I stepped to the front of the stage to play the 'Coronation' Concerto. This was an extraordinary development for many reasons.

"To begin with, as far as I know, I was the first African-American instrumentalist ever to play a concerto with the Pittsburgh Symphony. I assumed then, and still do, that one or two of the great singers of the century, Marian Anderson and perhaps William Warfield, had performed with the orchestra. Remember, this was 1956, seven years before the March on Washington and just two years after Brown vs. the Board of Education began to desegregate, in theory, at least, America's public schools. Conditions were still pretty uncomfortable for blacks in Pittsburgh and in the nation in general.

"So to have this young colored girl, with curls down to her waist, step onto the stage in an aqua satin dress and seat herself at a concert grand Steinway to play, not just one movement — usually young local soloists were limited to a single movement — but an entire concerto, was a cause for great rejoicing, especially in the colored community.

"This was not a weekday concert to which students were herded to the hall in yellow buses. Instead it was on a Sunday afternoon before an audience made up of the general public, which included hundreds of proud parents and friends of the student instrumentalists.

"The shabby little Green Room at Syria Mosque was overflowing with bouquets of flowers, all of them for me, which had been sent by well-wishers and friends of my parents. And I remember that day as one on which, as someone so young, I felt none of the doubts and fears that come to us when we become part of the adult world of music making. My joy was unadulterated.

"The Pittsburgh Symphony Junior concerts lasted through four or five seasons. I was the only Pittsburgh-area person chosen to be a soloist. Among the others was Susan Starr, a Curtis Institute graduate from Philadelphia, who went on to have an impressive career that included winning a silver medal at the international Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.

"That extraordinary day marked the beginning of my fifty-two-year association with the Pittsburgh Symphony."


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