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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Liner Notes Vol. XXI

Written by Elizabeth Bloom on .

Mid-winter blues? Brighten your day with some music news and features: 

From the New York Times, a requiem for China's WWII victims 

From Harvard Magazine, a profile of the composer Lei Liang 

From New Music Box, an interview with Royce Vavrek, opera's "it" librettist (By the way, he wrote the libretto for the opera "27," with music composed by Ricky Ian Gordon, which will be produced by Pittsburgh Opera resident artists next month.)

From the Washington Post, a music critic's efforts to instill a love of classical music in her son 

From The New Yorker, John Williams' music for "Star Wars" 

From Variety, the Martin Scorsese biopic about pianist (and McKeesport native) Byron Janis 

From The Economist, the rise of opera's stage directors 


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Philip Glass, Tim Fain, Pittsburgh

Written by Elizabeth Bloom on .

In case you missed it: Philip Glass has written a couple of things since he was the composer-in-residence for the Pittsburgh Public Schools in the early 1960s. 

OK, so maybe he's done more than a few. And whattya know: For the first time on its main subscription series, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra will perform a piece by Mr. Glass, the composer of "Einstein on the Beach" and one of the elder statesmen of American classical music.

7c66836b-220d-415c-830c-c836e3ab9cc8Philip Glass (left) and violinist Tim Fain. (Photo credit: Brian Hall)

On Sunday, I heard from a couple of people whose story was woven in with his.

First was the story of Louise Gray, the prudential schoolteacher I mentioned in the article, who rescued a Philip Glass manuscript from the trash. She wrote me this email:

"In October 2013, as I was reading Pittsburgh magazine, I came across an article by Rick Sebak about Philip Glass and his Pittsburgh connection. I taught music in the Pittsburgh Public Schools from 1979-2007. In the late 1980's, I was involved with the National Arts Education Research Center and was completing a project on contemporary music with my students. I was well aware of Mr. Glass and his work in Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh Public Schools offered a free Saturday program for students which provided at no cost private music lessons, theory classes, choral experiences, theatre, etc. This program was called the Centers for Musically Talented and was located at the old Peabody High School. I performed various tasks there but one of my very first jobs was to organize and maintain the music library. This was a room which housed all of the music and scores which the teachers would check out for use of their students.

"Since "the Centers" was at the mercy of Peabody as far as room assignments and storage, the music library was subject to frequent re-location. When I first entered the new music library room, it looked as if there had been a hurricane with papers, boxes, and music stands strewn everywhere. As I began to restore order to the room, I noticed a large round metal garbage container filled to capacity with yellowed sheet music, tattered scores, and rumpled manuscript papers. Something else caught my eye. It was a hand-written score for woodwind instruments by Philip Glass. I could not believe what I was seeing and quickly removed it from the trash. I was going to think on this one. I put the precious music in a Volkwein's folder, took it home, and then quickly forgot about it. Fast forward to Rick Sebak's article. After reading it, I recalled the retrieval of the Glass score but panic set in. We had purchased a fixer-upper home in Shadyside in 1988 and it was still in the process of getting 'fixed up.'

"Where did we put that we asked ourselves and fortunately it was quickly located. I shared my story with Pittsburgh Magazine and they printed a little blurb about it in a later issue. By that time, I made up mind to donate the music score, but I was undecided about where it should go. The University of Pittsburgh has a Center for American Music and probably would have welcomed the addition to their collection. The Carnegie Library has one of the largest music collections in the country and the score would add to it. After much thought, I donated it to the Carnegie Library since it has been such a great source of pleasure and education for me throughout my entire life. I also thought that if the score were placed at the library, a greater number of people would have access to it. So I am glad that I was able to preserve a piece of Pittsburgh music history and that the Glass score now has a respectful home. So now you know the whole story of the score that almost wasn't."

I love that story! Thank you very much to Ms. Gray for sending it along.

Owen Cantor, a French horn player turned dentist who lives in East Liberty, messaged me about what it was like to work with Mr. Glass as a student in the city schools:

"I was one of the young public school kids who worked with Phil when he lived in Pittsburgh. Both years! Looking back, how lucky I feel. I played horn in his Woodwind Quintet and also his Brass Sextet. We worked directly with Philip, often at his East Liberty loft [on Baum Boulevard, after he moved out of Shadyside], which he sublet from Robert Qualters, a legendary Pittsburgh painter. He also wrote orchestral and band music, and as a French horn player, I was always principal horn. He let me save my horn parts. I could probably find them somewhere in my house."

He continued:

"It was amazing to have Beethoven and Philip Glass equal partners in my earliest musical life. Maybe that's why I never had bias against 'new music'(?). When I was forming my life in music every period was equal.

"Also, Phil had the first electric eraser I ever laid eyes on. He'd compose, have us play, then take the parts back and erase what he didn't like."

As Mr. Cantor pointed out, Carnegie Mellon University's School of Music will produce the music/theater piece "Hydrogen Jukebox," with music by Mr. Glass and a libretto by the poet Allen Ginsberg, Jan. 21-24

Another couple of things worth noting:

  • Mr. Glass last year published a memoir, titled "Words Without Music."
  • As I briefly mentioned in the article, one of Mr. Glass' many collaborators was David Bowie, who died on Sunday and whose music informed his Symphonies No. 1 ("Low") and No. 4 ("Heroes"). The artists discussed their influences on each other in this video:

In Sunday's article, I didn't get a chance to delve deeply into the work of Mr. Glass' talented collaborator, Tim Fain, who will perform the solo on Glass' Violin Concerto No. 2 this weekend and who has taken on some interesting musical endeavors. For example, he worked with Google on a virtual reality music project, called "Resonance," for which he composed the music. "I was learning how to write music before I was learning how to write words, or at least simultaneously," he said. Working with Mr. Glass has informed his composition efforts to some extent. "It's been incredible working with him and talking with him about the way he writes," Mr. Fain said.

Addendum (posted 1/22): I received one more story from Philip Glass' Pittsburgh days. This comes from David Singer, who was a student in the city schools at the time. (Thanks to Mike Staresinic, Mr. Singer's former music student during the 1980s, who passed along Mr. Singer's story.)

"In 1965, I played clarinet in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, All-City High School Orchestra, representing Peabody High School. Distinctly remember the day we were given penciled copies of an orchestral composition that was difficult to follow and difficult to listen to at best. After a brief rehearsal of the piece, we were introduced to the composer, Philip Glass. At the time, Glass was a Ford Foundation composer in residence with the Pittsburgh Public Schools. For many of us, that moment represented a paradigm shift in the way we thought about music composition."

 Correction (1/22): Owen Cantor lives in East Liberty. A previous version of this post had an incorrect neighborhood. The post was also amended to clarify his title. 

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Gianandrea Noseda named music director of NSO

Written by Elizabeth Bloom on .

Happy New Year! 2016 already brings some big orchestra news out of Washington, D.C., where the National Symphony Orchestra announced the appointment of Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda as its new music director, reports Anne Midgette in the Washington Post. 

The headline describes Mr. Noseda as a rising star, but it's fair to say his star has already risen. Best known for his work in opera houses, he is a familiar face in Heinz Hall and was considered for the Pittsburgh Symphony's last opening for music director, the post held by Manfred Honeck. He also served as the PSO's Victor De Sabata guest conductor for four seasons. Most recently, he conducted the PSO over two weekends during the 2013-14 season. Lucky for Pittsburghers, he'll return to Heinz Hall in a few weeks to lead a concert of music by Rachmaninoff, Rossini and Beethoven. 

Gianandrea Noseda Photo Sussie Ahlburg 2012Gianandrea Noseda (photo credit: Sussie Ahlburg)

One thing I appreciated about Mr. Noseda's last appearances with the PSO was the programming of music by the Italian composer Alfredo Casella. As an audience member, I always enjoy hearing rarer works; that approach to programming allows an ensemble to introduce "new" pieces to the audience (even if they aren't contemporary works), adds fresh dimensions to orchestra concerts and offers the possibility of reviving music that might otherwise be lost to history — or receive fewer performances than it deserves. 

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Dallas Symphony postpones Europe tour; PSO's visit remains on schedule

Written by Elizabeth Bloom on .

The Dallas Symphony Orchestra announced today its decision to postpone its April concert tour of Europe, "citing safety concerns in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernadino, Calif.," reports Michael Cooper in The New York Times. (In an unrelated move, the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra last week canceled its May tour to Spain, citing economic conditions in that country.)

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, which plans to embark on a 14-concert tour to Europe in May and June 2016, said it does not plan to alter its own travel schedule. 

"At this point in time, the Pittsburgh Symphony is planning to move forward with its tour," Louise Sciannameo, vice president of public affairs, said in a telephone interview. "With all the facts available to us at this point, we feel our decision is appropriate."

The Dallas Symphony Association said it made its decision "based on extensive conversations with national and international security professionals," according to Mr. Cooper's post. When asked whether the PSO was involved in similar conversations, Ms. Sciannameo said, "I can tell you that whenever we tour, we always consult with security officials."

Led by music director Manfred Honeck, the PSO's tour includes visits to seven cities in Germany; Vienna and Bregenz, Austria; Basel, Switzerland; and Brussels, Belgium. The tour, the PSO's first international trip since 2013, will be centered on a residency at Vienna's Musikverein, considered one of the world's greatest concert venues. It will feature solo performances by pianist Daniil Trifonov, percussionist Martin Grubinger and violinists Anne-Sophie Mutter and Leonidas Kavakos.


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