Why Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra musicians donated $10,000 to another ensemble

The gift to Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s orchestra will help get musicians back in the pit.

Amanda Cochrane, Yoshiaki Nakano and Robert Vickrey (center) in a production of "Romeo + Juliet" that featured a live orchestra.

Amanda Cochrane, Yoshiaki Nakano and Robert Vickrey (center) in a production of "Romeo + Juliet" that featured a live orchestra.

Rich Sofranko / Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre
Sarah Anne Hughes

Musicians care about other musicians in Pittsburgh.

That was one of the lessons learned from last fall’s Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra strike, which saw members of other ensembles join the picket line during the 55-day demonstration.

Now, eight months later, PSO musicians are returning the favor. Members of the orchestra voted unanimously to donate $10,000 last week to the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre orchestra endowment, which officials say will help sustain and expand live dance accompaniment.

“We believe that all ballet performances should have a live orchestra,” said Micah Howard, PSO Orchestra Committee chairman and double bass player. “Pittsburgh deserves that.”

Howard said the musicians’ main aim is to encourage others to donate to the endowment, which is one piece of PBT’s $21.2 million fundraising campaign.

“Our campaign is all about the long-term stability and thriving future of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre,” Harris Ferris, executive director of PBT, said. “We all have a vision of what that looks like. The vision always includes the continuation of live music.”

PBT’s board cut live music from the 2005-06 season in order to save more than a half a million dollars — a decision the orchestra learned of just 30 minutes before the general public. PSO musicians at the time rose to the defense of PBT orchestra.

“Cutting live music from performances of classic works of art such as ‘Carmen,’ ‘The Nutcracker,’ ‘Coppelia’ and ‘La Sylphide’ is not a strategy — it’s a travesty,” Hampton Mallory, then-chair of the PSO Committee, wrote in a Post-Gazette op-ed.

The absence was short lived. In 2006, Ferris joined PBT as executive director and live music returned for two productions after the launch of the grassroots “Say it With Music” campaign.

Each season since has featured live music, but Ferris said there’s still a misconception that PBT is without an orchestra.

“Bad news has a longer shelf life,” he said.

‘The art is in the moment’

PBT’s 2016-17 season featured an orchestra at nine performances. This season will have 12, including the run of “Swan Lake.”

The endowment will help sustain the live music PBT has now with the goal of adding the orchestra back to additional performances in the future, Ferris said.

As a former dancer himself, Ferris knows the difference between performing with a live orchestra and without one.

“The art is in the moment,” he said. You can’t step in the same river twice, he noted, a nod to Heraclitus. “That’s what the experience is. It’s not replicable.”

Ferris said PBT is 15 percent toward the $4 million endowment goal, while the company is 86 percent of the way to meeting its five-year campaign goal. Donors are able to specify funds for the orchestra or can underwrite a position like first violinist. But, Ferris noted, “we don’t turn down any gifts.”

The donation from the PSO musicians is especially special to the ballet. “The symbolism of a unified desire to see live music sends a strong message to our audience,” Ferris said.

Cynthia Anderson, a PBT oboist who served as the orchestra’s voice during the 2005 cuts, echoed that sentiment in a statement.

“The musicians of the PBT Orchestra are overwhelmed by the generosity of our friends and colleagues in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra for their donation to the live music endowment,” she said. “The PSO musicians know how important live music is in our city and in our precious performing arts institutions, and they have demonstrated their commitment in a very tangible way by this gesture of support.”

“Pittsburgh is a cultural mecca for the nation and the world,” Ferris said, and having live music is one way PBT can continue to contribute to that.

That’s a happy side effect for the PSO musicians. Jeremy Branson, a PSO percussionist and vice chair of the musicians’ committee, said of the donation, “The reasoning is just to get the orchestra back in the pit.”