Like nearly all performing arts organizations, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO) was caught flat-footed by the pandemic, which ended all public gatherings within the hallowed walls of Heinz Hall.
They were, however, able to salvage their landmark 125th season, with help from Pittsburgh’s Flying Scooter Productions. The result is a six-part web series, “Front Row,” featuring episodes ranging from 45 minutes to an hour. All episodes feature the world-renowned PSO’s shimmering, transcendent music and an idiosyncratic travelogue through Pittsburgh: its landmarks, history, innovators, secrets and unexpected pleasures.
“At the moment, we feel like someone who wants to give a gift, wants to hand over flowers, but that person (the recipient) is not here,” says PSO Music Director Manfred Honeck, in the first episode of “Front Row.”
The music in the series ranges from the Italian cinema score genius of Ennio Morricone, to Beethoven (celebrating his 250th birthday), to a jazz diversion with pianist Bobby Floyd, to a premiere from Jessie Montgomery, an acclaimed, young Black female composer based in Philadelphia.
“We wanted to give their patrons and new audiences something to explore,” says Jennifer Schlieper, co-owner of Flying Scooter and director of the web series. “Music is the base but the real magic comes from the voices all around the city.”
The settings might seem all over the map, but they were chosen carefully. They range from Heinz Hall to the bucolic beauty of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, to the iconic Andy Warhol Museum, to the rough-hewn, tactile studio of internationally-renowned sculptor Thaddeus Mosley. There’s also an informal chat about race and music at Z-Best Barbecue in the Hill District and a musical tribute to “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
It’s a whirlwind tour, but the music stitches it all together.
Schlieper says they wanted it to be a gift to the city. “We just really wanted to give back and showcase some of the people in the city,” That’s who Pittsburgh is, she says.
It was extremely tricky to manage this safely during Covid. With indoor capacity at 25 — including a maximum of 18 musicians on stage and every camera manned — it was a challenge to simply shoot footage. Performers were masked. Surfaces were constantly disinfected. Brass and horn players were not allowed to perform inside.
But they pulled it off. Each episode has a theme, like “Originators and Disruptors,” which features pieces on Fred Rogers, environmental pioneer Rachel Carson and choreographer Martha Graham (all from Pittsburgh). Of course, there’s a holiday episode with Academy Award-winning singer Vanessa Campagna. Another episode showcases trumpet virtuoso and PSO’s Principal Pops Conductor Byron Stripling.
It’s easy to get immersed in the music entirely. “You’re like in the person’s lap,” says Schlieper.
“Front Row,” which premiered in October, has been watched by thousands so far, in 16 different countries. Flying Scooter has been fielding questions from other symphonies about how to do something similar. The series can be found on the PSO’s website or streamed for free on Comcast six months following each release. Keeping it free was a major consideration.
“They (the PSO) were able to get funding from foundations and the state to be able to do that,” says Schlieper. There were patrons who gave additional donations to the project, “but they never asked for a penny from anybody to watch it because they really wanted to make sure that it was seen by everyone.”
The PSO is also hosting a Digital 125th Anniversary Celebration on Feb. 27 at 7:30 p.m., for a $25 donation.