Dear PSO: It’s time to beat up on Cleve­land

Pitts­burgh mu­si­cians should take a cue from pro­fes­sional sports and bat­tle ri­val or­ches­tras

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Sunday perspectives - Bruce Bar­ron is a clas­si­cal mu­sic fan who lives in Bethel Park.

The Pitts­burgh Sym­phony Orches­tra’s im­me­di­ate fi­nan­cial cri­sis is over, with help from three lo­cal foun­da­tions, and its mag­i­cal mu­si­cians have just re­turned from a tri­umphant tour of Europe, mak­ing our great city known over­seas for some­thing other than ro­bots.

But the orches­tra’s long-term fi­nan­cial pic­ture re­mains un­cer­tain, as con­cert­go­ers are re­minded by each pro­gram, one page of which fea­tures the words “Sup­port Your An­nual Fund!” suit­ably sur­rounded by a large amount of red ink.

The PSO has upped its com­mu­nity en­gage­ment, of­fered free con­certs and played ex­tra en­cores to ex­pand and en­dear it­self to its clien­tele. But its core prod­uct still re­quires cus­tomers to sit qui­etly and pas­sively and lis­ten to great mu­sic, which seems so passe th­ese days.

Each time I won­der how to keep this mar­velous in­sti­tu­tion from be­com­ing a mu­seum piece, I re­call the Post-Gazette reader who wrote dur­ing last year’s strike, pre­sum­ably in a back­handed ref­er­ence to some North Shore buccaneers mas­querad­ing as ballplay­ers, that the PSO has never had a los­ing sea­son.

That’s ex­actly the prob­lem: They can’t lose be­cause they don’t com­pete.

Pro­fes­sional sports are the great­est mar­ket­ing suc­cess in mod­ern Amer­ica. The Pi­rates may lose a lot, but they also have two more dig­its in their an­nual salaries than the world-class per­form­ers at Heinz Hall. To sur­vive in our po­lar­ized, con­tentious cul­ture, the PSO and or­ches­tras around the coun­try must trade in their out­dated ways and adopt the model of big-time sports.

Imag­ine the buzz through­out our city — imag­ine the ex­plo­sion of civic pride — if the PSO an­nounced this month that be­gin­ning next fall, it would com­pete in the North­ern Divi­sion of the Na­tional Sym­phony League (NSL) against its ri­vals from Bal­ti­more, Cleve­land and Cincin­nati.

Even bet­ter: It would hold fre­quent in­ter-divi­sion matchups against the Bos­ton Sym­phony, known for at­tract­ing young fans with its orig­i­nal com­po­si­tion, “Pop Go the De­flated Foot­balls.”

Let’s con­sider how sym­phony or­ches­tras could eas­ily ap­pro­pri­ate the sports-mar­ket­ing model.

Au­di­ence par­tic­i­pa­tion: In the NSL, in­stead of po­litely clap­ping, fans could boo rau­cously as WQED’s Jim Cun­ning­ham in­tones, “Please wel­come tonight’s visi­tors, the Cleve­land Orches­tra!” The op­por­tu­nity to scream ob­scen­i­ties at an op­pos­ing trum­peter should cap­ture a whole new mar­ket seg­ment.

Un­cer­tainty of out­come: Sports ex­cite peo­ple be­cause the re­sult is un­known, some­times un­til the very last se­cond. In con­trast, with the PSO, how each piece turns out is de­cided long be­fore the first note is played (300 years be­fore, if they’re play­ing Bach).

To cre­ate un­cer­tainty, the NSL will need rules, ref­er­ees and score­keep­ers. Pre­sum­ably, com­pet­ing or­ches­tras will play the same mu­sic and be judged on a set of es­tab­lished cri­te­ria.

Since the aver­age Joe can’t dis­tin­guish one pro­fes­sional mu­si­cian from the next, the judg­ing will be in­com­pre­hen­si­ble to most fans, but that has never stopped fig­ure skat­ing or gym­nas­tics from gen­er­at­ing world­wide con­tro­ver­sies. If the NSL ref­er­ees cre­ate controversy, that’s great — then the fans can scream ob­scen­i­ties at them, too.

Some­thing to talk about: To sur­vive in a Pitts­burgh work­place, one must al­ways have an an­swer to the city’s most com­mon ques­tion, “How ‘bout dem Steelers?” A re­sponse like “I went to the sym­phony con­cert, it was beau­ti­ful and in­spir­ing” just doesn’t cut it. But “Yeah, and did you hear how Randy Kelly crushed the Cincin­nati vi­o­list with his tremolo?” will fit right in.

Be­ing talked about has its neg­a­tives; for the first time ever, the ra­dio waves will over­flow with calls to “fire Ho­neck” after a bad loss. But I think Man­fred has a thick skin.

Star power: De­spite their re­cent group brand­ing ef­forts, the “Mu­si­cians of the PSO” re­main in­di­vid­u­ally anony­mous to all but a few ad­mir­ers. The NSL’s head-to-head solo bat­tles will change all that. Soon Dick’s Sport­ing Goods will be sell­ing PSO uni­forms with player names and num­bers on the back, like C1 for prin­ci­pal cel­list.

Gam­bling: The NFL of course doesn’t know this, but gam­bling is a big part of its suc­cess. In the NSL, peo­ple could wa­ger on a game’s over­all re­sult or place in­nu­mer­able side bets on things such as which team will at­tempt “Flight of the Bum­ble­bee” at a faster tempo.

Sadly, some purists will re­sist th­ese up­grades. They still think that sym­phony or­ches­tras are sup­posed to ex­em­plify mu­sic’s amaz­ing abil­ity to em­body the full range of hu­man emo­tions, to bring a deeply di­vided peo­ple to­gether in peace and har­mony, and to com­bine vir­tu­os­ity and ex­pres­sive­ness in spec­tac­u­lar per­for­mances at which ev­ery­body wins.

Those purists are hope­lessly be­hind the times. They prob­a­bly also think our pres­i­dent is sup­posed to be­have in a dig­ni­fied man­ner.

If you agree that cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions that un­der­gird a har­mo­nious so­ci­ety are no longer needed, I’ll hope to see you at Heinz Field for an NSL game soon. The acous­tics don’t match Heinz Hall, but the crowds will be larger.

Bill Wade/Post-Gazette

PSO mu­sic di­rec­tor Man­fred Ho­neck might get fired if he loses too many games, but he seems to have a thick skin.

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