Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Plays it Forward

By Elizabeth Bloom / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Although she was born in Indiana, Tatjana Chamis, the associate principal violist of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, spent much of her early years in Germany, learning English, French and German from her parents and peers. When, at age 10, her family moved to Utah, the young polyglot became mute, embarrassed by her accent when she spoke English.

And so music became her language.

“That completely became my voice,” Ms. Chamis said. “I can express anything with viola.”

Many PSO musicians point to a teacher, a school program or a concert that piqued their interest in music when they were children. And now, as budgets for music education are slashed across the country, the players are giving back.

They have established the PSO Musicians Care Fund, which is held by The Pittsburgh Foundation and will allow local schools and organizations to apply for funding for music education projects, such as instrument repairs, scholarships and related programming.

To raise money for the fund, roughly 65 to 70 PSO musicians — as many as can fit — will give a concert Oct. 14 at 8 p.m. at Rodef Shalom Congregation, 4905 Fifth Ave., Shadyside. Carnegie Mellon University graduate and Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart will conduct.

The performance is free, although donations of about $25 at the concert are suggested, and advance registration is recommended (http://rodefshalom.org/music or 412-621-6566). The concert will feature classical favorites, including selections from Bizet’s “Carmen,” Elgar’s “Nimrod” from the “Enigma Variations” and the finale from Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5.

The fund appears to be the first of its kind in the country, in that it is entirely driven by the efforts of the musicians outside of the management of the orchestra. The players hope it can be a model for others.

“We’re really in uncharted territory. I don’t know of another orchestra doing this, and we’ve certainly never done it,” said principal timpanist Ed Stephan.

After brainstorming on the project, the musicians reached out to the Pittsburgh Foundation. Rodef Shalom and Mr. Lockhart to put the concert together.

“It took shape pretty quickly. I think that’s an indication that there’s a need for it,” said trombonist Jim Nova.

“I think one of the inspirations … is recognition of the fact that music education and the availability of instruments for young people in school is basically not as good as it should be,” said John Ellis, Pittsburgh Foundation spokesman.

Mr. Lockhart, who came to CMU in 1981 and has several connections to PSO musicians, looks forward to “not only making music with them but also making a statement with them.”

“We all understand that outreach is the way forward,” he said. “This is not a management initiative. This is the players themselves collectively realizing their investment in the future of the arts and doing something about it.”

PSO musicians have performed before at Rodef Shalom; a concert in the orchestra’s Music for the Spirit series took place there in 2012.

“When the symphony plays in there, it’s just remarkable. The place fills with music in ways that are just unimaginable,” said congregation president Ann Bass Roth.

Another benefit concert, conducted by music director Manfred Honeck, will take place Feb. 1 at Upper St. Clair High School. The musicians plan to present annual fundraising concerts thereafter.