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What could we have heard at the Performing Arts Center in the Hill?

By Yechun Huang


Decorated with neoclassical columns and ornate, golden gilding, Heinz Hall is recognized by Pittsburghers as a destination for symphonic performances. A lesser known fact is that Pittsburgh officials in the 1950s had planned to construct a symphonic hall in the Hill District as part of a broader plan to build a Cultural Center in the Lower Hill. Although the proposed theater was never constructed, largely because financial support waned, we might imagine an alternate history in which the theater was actually built. It raises the question: what would it have taken for this project to connect meaningfully to the Lower Hill?

The urban planners for the Cultural Center in the Hill did not adequately seek out community input on the project nor consider the broader effects of the project. The most damaging consequence of the urban renewal initiative was the complete destruction of the Lower Hill community. In his book The Politics of Place, Gregory J. Crowley described how federally-funded
developers initiated demolition of the Lower Hill buildings that were in poor repair. Although new housing was being developed for displaced residents, the demolition process far outpaced the new construction. An estimated 1,324 buildings were destroyed, leaving more than 8,000 people, mostly African-American, without a place to live. Community leader Frankie Mae Pace contested the plan. In a 1973 interview, she described a meeting in which she asked Mr. Heinz, “if you want to do something in the Hill, why don’t you build some apartments for poor people?” Recognizing that the development plan was not serving the interests of the Hill community, Frankie Pace spearheaded the effort to erect a billboard protesting the changes. Standing at the corner of Crawford Street and Centre Avenue, the billboard read “NO Redevelopment Beyond This Point.”


Suppose, however, that the developers from the 1950s were able to deliver on their promise, keeping the Lower Hill community intact, offering affordable housing, and also constructing a performing arts center. What kind of concert program might have been performed at the theater opening?

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“Proposed Lower Hill Cultural Center.” Allegheny Conference on Community Development Photographs, 1892-1981, MSP 285, Library and Archives Division, Senator John Heinz History Center

At the actual opening concert of the existing Heinz Hall, originally a movie theater built in the 1920s, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra performed Gustav Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony No. 2, a work that epitomizes German Romantic style. When the chorus called out, “Auferstehen” (“arise”), it was clear that the music was celebrating the renovation and symbolic “resurrection” of the theater. At the hypothetical opening of the Performing Arts Center what might have been played? Would the hall have showcased the jazz legacy of the Hill District? Would it have featured blues artists, which influenced Pittsburgh playwright August Wilson? Or, would the hall have presented “third stream” music, a new music genre that emerged in the 1950s that blended jazz and classical music?

Afro-American Symphony - I. Moderato AssaiWilliam Grant Still
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William Grant Still, “Afro-American” Symphony No. 1 (1930): I. Moderato assai

Neeme Järvi and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra

Imagine an opening concert that featured William Grant Still’s “Afro-American” Symphony No. 1 (1930), a piece that fuses classical, jazz, and blues style. In the sound clip, you will hear the symphony open with a solo line on the English horn, a woodwind instrument used in classical music to paint a picture of the rustic countryside. The instrument sounds mournful as its melody descends with notes from the blues scale. Then, the brass section takes over with a relaxed, walking tempo. You will hear a muted trumpet, an important instrument in jazz and orchestral music, playing a swung theme over 12-bar blues harmony.

How important do you think opening concerts are in establishing the character of a
performance hall? Do they have the potential to shape the future planning at the concert venue?
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Thanks for your feedback!


Concert program, Inaugural Concert at Heinz Hall by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

Crowley, Gregory J. The politics of place: Contentious urban redevelopment in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005.

Thurman, Kira. “When Europe Offered Black Composers an Ear.” The New York Times, August 27, 2021.

“Model for the proposed Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.” Allegheny Conference on Community Development Photographs, 1892-1981, MSP 285, Library and Archives Division, Senator John Heinz History Center.

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