Heinz Hall celebrates 30 years as home of the symphony
By Mark Kanny, Tribune Review Classical Music Critic
When the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra moved from the Syria Mosque in Oakland to the former Loew’s Penn Theater on Sixth Street, Downtown, it had its own home for the first time. It also marked the start of what has become the Cultural District, centralizing the arts Downtown among the corporate giants that support it.
The venue’s 30th anniversary was commemmorated Wednesday with a plaque from the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation that recognizes the importance of Heinz Hall architecturally and to the city’s quality of life.
The opening of Heinz Hall on Sept. 10, 1971, was national news, covered by two reporters from the New York Times, as well as other out-of-town journalists. The major Pittsburgh papers were on strike, but local coverage was provided by the Valley News Dispatch and Market Square news.
The symphony had previously performed in Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland, but its stage is too small for a full symphony orchestra, let alone choral works such as Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Syria Mosque was no more than a stopgap, with serious acoustical problems.
Hopes were high for the new hall. At the time, conversion of movie theaters into concert halls was considered a good way to save money, since completely new buildings are more expensive to build. City music lovers took note of the success of the conversion of Powell Hall in St. Louis, which boasts warmly appealing acoustics.
Alas, opening night was a gala social event and an acoustical disaster. Heinz Hall has been visually appealing from day one, but sound is the most important feature of any concert hall.
Although out-of-town critics liked the sound on opening night, Pittsburgh music lovers were vociferous in condemnation of Heinz Hall acoustics. So much for some critics!
Part of the difficulty was that the large chorus needed for Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony forced the shell surrounding the performers out of position opening night. When the shell was in the position intended by acoustician Karl Keilholz in the following weeks, Heinz Hall sounded much better, but still had serious problems, especially the lack of bass.
Most of the problems derived from the financial necessity to use Heinz Hall for opera, ballet and theatrical productions. Multi-purpose halls always suffer in comparison with dedicated concert halls. In fact, it took a decade for musicians to win a hardwood stage floor. Hardwood is more stressful for dancers, but necessary for good bass response.
A major renovation in the summer of 1995 greatly improved the acoustics, but certainly did not solve all the problems. Local music lovers will hear a new sound next week, when a new seating arrangement will provide added focus to the string sound.
The first music played in Heinz Hall was Beethoven’s “The Consecration of the House” Overture. Only musicians can truly consecrate a concert hall and fulfill its potential to transform the lives of those in attendance. The more than 2,500 symphonic concerts and more than 4,000 other performances since opening night have made Heinz Hall the heart of music life in Pittsburgh.
– Mark Kanny can be reached at (412) 320-7877 or firstname.lastname@example.org.