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Organizers take steps toward symphony trip to Iran

| Monday, March 3, 2014, 7:29 p.m.

Some supporters of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra are excited about a possible performance in Iran. Symphony officials are working with the Pittsburgh-based American Middle East Institute to make such a possibility a reality.

“I think it's very ambitious,” says Robert Levin, 57, president of Levin Furniture, and a symphony and Middle East Institute supporter. “But, if successful, it would truly be groundbreaking.”

Representatives of the symphony and the American Middle East Institute traveled overseas for a week in February to explore the possibility of organizing a performance in Iran. The proposed performance, tentatively set for September, would coincide with the 50th anniversary of the last time the orchestra performed in Tehran in 1964.

Symphony officials declined comment. Simin Yazdgerdi Curtis, president of the institute, called the possible performance “a momentous historical occasion.”

“We need this kind of cultural interaction,” says Curtis, whose father is Iranian. “Sometimes, culture leads and others will follow. To me, this is cultural diplomacy, people-to-people diplomacy at its finest.”

Curtis, who lived in Iran as a child, says she “can't say enough” about the culture she experienced while there.

“This is a society Americans know very little about,” she says. “I just saw the most cultural society with beautiful houses and historic sites. I saw sculptures the likes of which you can't even imagine. This is going to be such a treasure for the West once ties are open again.”

The symphony likely will play a mixture of Western-inspired and Persian music, including a piece by Reza Vali, an Iranian composer who teaches at Carnegie Mellon University, Curtis says.

Bob Moir, the symphony's vice president of artistic planning, told the Tribune-Review in January the tour would cost around $4 million. Those funds will not come out of the symphony's annual fund, which is supported by hundreds of individual donors and foundations. Curtis will work to raise the money herself.

Reports of donors privately expressing concern over the proposed trip circulated in various media outlets in recent weeks, among them safety for the performers. Curtis says while she's not anticipating any problems with safety, “we will make sure all concerns are met.”

“Iran is not Iraq. It's not Afghanistan. It's not Syria or Beirut,” she says. “They are not radical. They are a very stable, kind people.”

Levin, who traveled with a small group of seven Americans to tour Iran for 16 days in 2011, admits he was “apprehensive at first but was put at ease by the kindness and warmth of the Iranians,” during his stay.

“They were very enthusiastic and excited to meet Americans,” he says. “We learned in our travels of the great respect the Iranian people have for the arts and music, and of their own long and rich artistic traditions.

“As for the politics, no doubt, there are different views about how to engage or not to engage Iran, but I think that cultural exchange (and sport), is a way to build bridges and to promote good will among peoples,” Levin says.

Nachum Golan, 71, of Shadyside, a symphony supporter, says he is “definitely in favor” of the proposed performance.

“I don't think security will be an issue if the symphony goes to Iran,” he says. “The Iranians are smart enough to understand that anything that happened to anybody is going to be a blow to their prestige.”

Golan, who says he's been supporting the symphony for 25 years, came to the United States from Israel six decades ago. While his native country is embroiled in a longstanding dispute with Iran, he acknowledges that art is capable of aiding in healing among nations.

“If anything can unite us all, it's art and music,” he says. “Sure, you will have people who will say, ‘Why are we doing anything with them?' But when the symphony comes, it's different. It shows that they are welcoming in the world.

“People are all the same. The only time we're not is when we're filled with hatred.”

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